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Do You Owe Your Crappy Shave To Patents?

As some people know (my colleagues at work are sick of me talking about it), I recently became slightly... er... obsessed with the wonders of shaving with an old fashioned double edge safety razor. I won't go into the details, but in reading about shaving with such a device, I couldn't get it out of my mind and have been happily shaving with one for a few weeks now. To be honest, I never thought that I'd ever have reason to mention this in any way, shape or form on Techdirt, but just weeks after I started using one, I saw Stephan Kinsella point to a story by Callum Makkai entitled How Intellectual Property Destroyed Men's Shaving. Given my (entirely separate) interest in both subjects, I dug in. It kicks off with a reference to Andy Kessler's Eat People story about King Gillette's disruptive manufacturing of disposable blades that "challenged at least two professions: the barber with his straight razor and the blade sharpener with his strop."



From there, however, Makkai suggests patents have actually been making shaving worse. His argument is that as the makers of shaving equipment have been fearful of competing with commodity products, they keep "inventing" new ways to shave that they can lock up under patent -- and then try to convince you that it creates a better shave, even if none of the "improved" razors come close to one of those old safety razors:


The commodification of the razor blade was punishing to the profit margins of the razor companies. So the way ahead was clear: come up with new designs, patent them, and make a killing selling the disposable blades.



Thus the 1970s saw the emergence of the BIC disposable razor. Why replace just the blade when you can throw out and replace the whole razor?



Then in the 1980s, Gillette introduced the double-bladed Sensor cartridges. Now the question was: Why throw out the whole razor when you can just replace the cartridge?



Needless to say, these innovations were driven not so much by an improvement of the shaving experience but by the need to create a technology which could be patented.



Indeed, the injector razor did not improve the shaving experience compared to the classic double-edged safety razor, and the disposable razor was in no way superior to the injector razor. Likewise, the Sensor cartridges did not improve on the disposable razor. These developments only made shaving more expensive.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a cynical view on things. And one could make the argument that this isn't so much about patents as it is about marketing -- though it could be a combination of both. Frankly, the story reminds me of what we see all too often in the pharmaceutical world these days -- where when Claritin is about to go off patent, suddenly we get Clarinex, with an associated marketing campaign about how you have to use that rather than the original (much cheaper and equally effective) Claritin. Of course, if people didn't fall for the marketing campaigns, none of this would matter -- but they do. So combine that with the ability to charge monopoly rents due to patents, and voila, many of you are getting a crappy shave, despite the ten blades or whatever they're shoving on those darn cartridges these days. We should always be wary when life imitates The Onion, and wonder if, perhaps, the incentives are screwed up somewhere along the line.

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