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The war of the razors

Gillette-Schick fight over patent shows the cutthroat world of consumer products

David VerNooy is happy to talk about almost any detail of Schick-Wilkinson Sword's new Quattro, the world's first four-blade razor. Any detail, that is, except the positioning of the blades themselves.

VerNooy, a mechanical engineer who led Quattro's design team, will tell you about giving the handle a certain heft -- akin to a weighty knife or fork that feels good in the hand-- to convey a sense of quality. He'll tell you about attaching electrical nodes to mens' wrists to determine the most ergonomically sound handle.

He'll even tell you about a design feature he calls "synchronized dynamic blade pack," which distributes pressure across the blades, ensuring they move in unison to avoid nicks and cuts.

But he remains mum on the position of the blades. "With the litigation going on, I can't talk about that part of it," VerNooy said. "I can't go down that road."

That's because this month Gillette Co. of Boston, maker of the three-blade Mach3, the world's best selling razor, sued Schick's parent, Energizer Holdings Inc. of St. Louis, claiming the Quattro infringes on a patent critical to its Mach3 and Venus razor blades. In a motion filed Friday in federal court in Boston, Gillette sought a preliminary injunction to stop Quattro's introduction next month. At issue is what Gillette calls its patented "progressive blade geometry," in which each blade gets closer to the skin than the last one, giving what Gillette says is "the closest, most comfortable shave in a single stroke."

The suit is the latest round in an increasingly acrimonious rivalry between the two companies. Gillette filed its patent suit on the same day Schick formally announced the Quattro -- less than six weeks before its scheduled rollout.

At first glance, the lawsuit may seem like a publicity stunt to foil the launch of a competing product. But patent attorneys say the legal battle offers a glimpse into the cutthroat world of consumer products. Though companies battle more frequently over advertising claims and trademark rights than patents, consumer product giants like Gillette and Procter & Gamble Co. aggressively patent seemingly small advances to gain a competitive edge.

"Small improvements often result in enforceable patents," said Gary Hecker, chairman of Hecker Law Group, a Los Angeles firm specializing in patent litigation. "The examples are endless -- toothbrushes, sunglasses, waterbeds, toys, knives, headphones."

P&G and Kimberly-Clark Corp. fought for years in court over dueling patents for diaper leg cuffs meant to stop leaks. Nike sued L.A. Gear in the early 1990s, claiming L.A. Gear's Catapult sneakers infringed on a Nike patent on a heel wedge designed to act like a spring and another on covering how the shoes are laced.

Razors are among the most heavily patented consumer products, with more than 1,000 patents covering everything from lubricating strips to cartridge-loading systems. Gillette has more than 50 patents covering its Mach3 franchise. Schick holds eight patents protecting the Quattro and has other applications pending at the US Patent and Trademark Office but won't say how many or whether any address blade geometry. The patent volume in part reflects the competitive nature of the business. Around the world, people last year bought $7.5 billion of razors and blades, and Gillette and Schick are the two main players. Capitalizing on a history of innovation, Gillette dominates the market, with 72 percent of sales. Schick's 18 percent share is a distant second. With Quattro, however, Schick could pull off a rare feat of technological one-upmanship.

Schick isn't backing down. The company denies infringing on the patent and says it will go ahead with Quattro's introduction as planned. "This will be the only four-bladed razor on market," VerNooy said. "It's different from everything."

Gillette went to work on a three-blade razor in the early 1970s -- not long after introducing the world's first twin blade. But early prototypes developed in its research labs in Reading, England, had a fatal flaw: They irritated the skin. Gillette turned to other technologies, including the pivoting Atra and the Sensor, which had blades mounted on a spring.

In the early 1990s, the company finally developed a prototype of a three-blade razor that in internal shaving tests beat the Sensor. Code named Manx (because one of the engineers hailed from the Isle of Man, where the inhabitants are known as Manxmen) the razor used a new blade alignment that positioned the blades progressively closer to the skin, each one cutting closer than the last.

In 1998, after more than $750 million of research and testing, Gillette introduced Mach3, the world's first triple-blade razor. It spent $300 million in the first year to promote it. One ad showed a fighter jet breaking through the sound barrier -- Mach 1 -- and starting to disintegrate after passing Mach 2. As the jet broke through Mach 3, the pilot morphed into a man in a bathroom, where a razor flew into his hand.

"Adding more blades will give you a closer shave," said Gillette spokesman Eric Kraus. "But that's not the magic. The more blades, the more drag you have and the more chance of irritation. We know from years and years of testing that progressive blade geometry is critical."

Schick declined to say exactly how long or how much it spent developing Quattro, but the company said the project consumed years and thousands of engineering hours. This summer, Schick began distributing samples of its new razor to retailers in preparation for the launch. Schick told them the Quattro had outperformed Mach3 in numerous tests involving hundreds of people.

Even before filing suit, Gillette called those claims "highly subjective."

But earlier this summer, Gillette got hold of 10 of the sample cartridges. Kraus declined to say how. Company engineers dismantled the Quattro blades, examining their design and studying the positioning of the blades. They measured the exposed blade edges using a special microscope. After thorough testing, Kraus said, Gillette determined the Quattro infringed on its patented progressive blade geometry by using its design and simply adding another blade.

Filed in 1994, patent No. 6,212,777 describes the technology in exacting detail. The patent covers a group of three blades with parallel sharpened edges located between a plastic cap at the top of the cartridge and a guard at the bottom. The blade closest to the cap must stick out no more than .2 mm. The last blade, closest to the guard, must be recessed into the cartridge at least .2 mm. The middle blade must fall in between.

Positioned accordingly, the first blade is designed to lift the hair, the second to cut it and the third to cut it even closer. And though the patent refers to three blades, Kraus said it applies to any three blades similarly aligned, regardless of whether they are part of a four-, five- or 20-blade razor.

In this regard, patent attorneys say, Gillette is likely on firm ground. But little else is certain. Schick has not responded in court yet to Gillette's suit, and Schick declined to go into detail on how it will defend itself. Patent lawyers say Schick could argue that it doesn't infringe on the patent because it has found a way to design around the patents claims. Failing that, it could also argue that the patent is invalid because the technology wasn't really new, or because it would have been obvious to someone schooled in razor blade design.

"Every word in each of the patent's claims needs to be defined," said Andrew Beckerman-Rodeau, a professor at Suffolk University Law School. "It's not always so clear what a patent covers. And it's not going to be clear until they start litigating the case."

Patent cases can take years and millions of dollars to litigate. If, at the end of the day, Schick is found to be infringing on Gillette's patent, it could be forced to stop selling the Quattro, turn over all its profits from Quattro sales to Gillette, and destroy any remaining Quattro inventory. In addition, it would also likely be ordered to refund to consumers the cost of a Quattro razor they can no longer use.

That's what happened to Eastman Kodak Co. In 1990, 14 years into a bitter patent fight, a federal judge ordered the company to pay Polaroid Corp. $909.5 million for infringing on its instant photography patents. An earlier decision in the case forced Kodak to withdraw its instant cameras from the market, destroy its inventory and give refunds to people who had bought the cameras. Tallying all the expenses, patent attorneys said, the case cost Kodak about $3 billion.

"That's the strategic decision a company has to make," said Constance E. Bagley, an associate professor at Harvard Business School. "If you lose the fight, everything you've made literally goes into a landfill. It's high-stakes litigation, and it's a gamble."

Naomi Aoki can be reached at naoki@globe.com.

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