Super Soaker Inventor: Keep toys and millions of other products in the pipeline -- protect the patent system

As an inventor holding over 100 U.S. patents – including the Super Soaker water gun, Nerf dart guns, clean energy technologies and many more – I know firsthand the vital role that patents play in incentivizing and protecting innovation.

Patents, copyrights and trademarks all protect intellectual property – an invention, idea or process that derives from a person’s creative thoughts. The U.S. House Small Business Committee is holding a hearing on the topic Wednesday.  

Patents are vital to encourage the creation of inventions and other intellectual property.

The patents that protected my inventions allowed me to pitch the inventions to companies without the risk of them being stolen. Royalties from my patents provided the capital to start my own company and fund new discoveries.

But the strong patent system that helped me succeed in the 1980s and 1990s is now weaker due to court decisions and other changes in the law. And the United States has fallen in global patent rankings from the No.1 spot in the world down to No.12 this year.

I am worried that the patent system that helped me succeed will not be there for future generations of inventors. Fortunately, there is bipartisan legislation in Congress to fix this problem. The aptly-named “STRONGER Patents Act” will ensure that future generations have the same protections and incentives that I did.

The story of the Super Soaker is a story of hard work that was incentivized and protected by patents. I conceived of the idea of the Super Soaker while still employed as a NASA engineer. I built a prototype and tested it in my bathroom.

The first patent on my initial design was filed in 1983. Although I initially hoped to manufacture the toys myself, I quickly realized that the equipment was too expensive for me to make the Super Soaker. So I decided to look for a toy company to handle the manufacturing.

In 1989, after years of tinkering and pitching my idea, I finally entered into a business agreement with Larami Corporation.

After the Super Soaker was commercially launched, it became one of the world’s best-selling toys in 1991. But to get there took more than 10 years. The reason Larami entered a deal with me was because I had patent protection for my invention.

Licensing my patent rights to Larami (Hasbro today) allowed me to focus on improving the product and inventing new designs, including more fun and more powerful versions of the squirt gun. My patents also prevented copycats from stealing my designs.

And most importantly, the royalties from my patents allowed me to fund new research on technologies in my lab, including clean energy batteries and engines.

Which gets us back to why the STRONGER Patents Act is important. The legislation would restore the ability of inventors to get “injunctive relief” against copycats, stopping infringers from using stolen technology. This ability has slipped away in recent years and needs to come back.

All inventors should have the legal right to obtain an injunction, whether the inventor manufactures the product himself or herself, or – like me – licenses the patents to others to do the manufacturing.

A second important aspect of the STRONGER Patents Act is fixing the post-grant patent revocation process, a process that allows a competitor to force a patent owner to go back to the Patent Office to defend his or her patent after the patent was previously approved.

Changes to this process in 2012 have tilted the system against patent owners. Statistics show a very high rate of patents being cancelled by the Patent Office since 2012.

I was fortunate. When one of my Super Soaker patents was challenged back in 2010, the Patent Office agreed with me that my patent was validly issued. But that was before the process became tilted against patent holders.

Inventors today are not so lucky. The STRONGER Patents Act will help level the playing field so that patents are not improperly taken away from their owners.

In summary, if you want to see more inventions in the future that make the world healthier, safer, and cleaner – or just more fun (like the Super Soaker) – then you should support a stronger patent system that protects and rewards the fruits of inventors’ discoveries.

Dr. Lonnie G. Johnson is a former NASA engineer and founder of Johnson Research & Development Co. He is best known as the inventor of the Super Soaker squirt gun, which became one of the most popular toys in the world and has generated billions of dollars in retail revenue.