Picker on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the Razors-and-Blades Myth

It’s Really About the DMCA
Randal Picker
The Media Institute
December 22, 2010

I was standing in line Sunday to order a sandwich – Italian beef, one of the Holy Trinity of Chicago food (deep-dish pizza and hot dogs, if you are so poorly informed that you have to ask) – and there he was: King Gillette.  I was at one spot of a Chicago-based chain and each location is decorated in paraphernalia from a particular era.  The wall hanging next to the checkout had an old-style Gillette razor, a number of razor blades and, most importantly, wrappers for old Gillette blades.  The image of King Gillette – that was his given name – appeared throughout the world on Gillette wrappers and Gillette had to be one of the most recognized people in the world.

My most recent paper is The Razors-and-Blades Myth(s).  Read the paper carefully and you will notice that there is no mention of copyright and certainly not the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, known to both friend and foe as the DMCA.  And yet it is just as much about the DMCA as the papers that I have written on printers, garage door openers, DVRs, VCRs and e-book readers.  (This looks like a research strategy based on what I find in my house each morning, but I swear that it isn’t.)  Let me relate the story of King Gillette quickly and then circle back to the DMCA.

In 1904, Gillette received two patents on razors, blades, and the combination of the two. As the patents make clear, Gillette had a clear vision of the markets that he would create: “Hence,” stated the patent application, “I am able to produce and sell my blades so cheaply that the user may buy them in quantities and throw them away when dull without making the expense ... as great as that of keeping the prior blades sharp.”

But Gillette did more than invent a new razor and a new blade.  As Chris Anderson notes in his recent business bestseller, Free, Gillette invented an entire business strategy, one still taught in business schools and implemented today across many industries – from VCRs and DVD players to video-game systems like the Xbox and now ebook readers.  Create an installed base by selling a product at a low price or even giving it away, then sell a related product at a high price to recoup the prior investment.  This was the world that Gillette created.

Or did he?

Randal C. Picker