The laser had many inventors, but only one, Gordon Gould, is getting rich from it.
Gould owns basic patents on two of the most important kinds of lasers, gas discharge and optically pumped, based on his graduate work at Columbia University in the late 1950s.Gould, 68, estimates he will make close to $2 million a year from patent licenses once all potential licensees are signed up. Most already are.
"I was always more interested in the monetary outcome than any glory," Gould, now a venture capitalist, said.
Ironically, Gould is reaping profits from lasers precisely because it took until the 1980s for the Patent Office to recognize his contributions.
Patents protect inventions for only 17 years: If Gould had won patents right away they would have expired by now, before the laser market got big enough to produce significant license fees.
Gould owns only 20 percent of the income from his patents. Sixty-four percent is owned by the licensing agent, Patlex Corp. of Los Angeles, headed by Frank Borman, the former astronaut and ex-Eastern Airlines president. The rest is owned by Refac Technology Development Corp., the original licensing agent.
Many laser makers and users say Patlex is charging too much for use of the Gould patents. To that complaint, the inventor has a one-word answer: "Tough."
Two other laser pioneers, brothers-in-law Charles Townes and Arthur Schawlow, shared a basic laser patent, but never profited from it.
Schawlow worked at AT&T Bell Laboratories at the time of their work and Townes, a Columbia University professor, served as a consultant.
"I feel I have an adequate livelihood and I'm not concerned about it," Townes, 73, recalled in an interview last year. "I'd rather think about other things as long as I can get money to support my research."
Townes said he continues to use lasers in astrophysics research - "It's like getting a microscope on the sky."
Gould takes an unsentimental approach to the laser but admits he had an emotional moment about four years ago.
"I had eye surgery to pin back a detached retina. You can imagine how I felt to be looking into that laser and knowing I played a part in getting it there."