This latest recession has only caused even more small and medium sized businesses to look to cut costs by outsourcing their product manufacturing to China. Unfortunately, many of these companies now engaging in OEM (original equipment manufacturing) outsourcing to China are failing to take some or all of the minimal legal steps necessary to protect themselves. When problems arise, they can do little or nothing to protect themselves because they have no legal basis for protection.
China’s legal system for resolving commercial disputes has improved greatly over the past ten years and taking a few basic legal steps can greatly reduce your risk. The cost of such protection is modest compared to the protection it will provide.
The following five basic steps will greatly reduce your problems with Chinese manufacturers, while improving your chances of recovering should any problems arise.

1. Create and properly register your intellectual property rights in the United States or whatever country or countries in which you sell the bulk of your products. If you do not have a firm basis for your IP rights under U.S. law, you will have nothing to protect in China. Before you go to China, be sure your intellectual property is protected under U.S. law or the laws of whatever country or countries in which you sell your products. Protect your brand identity by creating and registering your trademark, slogan and/or logo. Register your important copyrights. Carefully identify and protect your trade secrets, proprietary information and know how. Patent what you can.

Doing the above will mean that no matter what happens in China, you will at least be able to protect your product to the fullest extent possible in the country or countries in which you sell your products.

2. Register your trademarks in China. Registration can protect your future access to the Chinese market, prevent the export of counterfeit goods from China, and prevent a competitor from registering your mark in China, which would prohibit you from exporting your own product from China. For more on the necessity of registering your trademark in China, check out, “WHEN To Register Your China Trademark” and “China Trademarks — Do You Feel Lucky? Do You?

3. Use a written agreement to protect your know how and trade secrets in China. Small and medium sized companies usually do not have an extensive portfolio of patents. Their most valuable intangible assets typically are their know-how and their trade secrets, which cannot be protected by formal registration. Chinese law, however, permits companies to contractually protect their know how and trade secrets by contract. Such agreements may (and in most cases should) also address issues such as non-competition and confidentiality. Without such a written agreement, no such protection is available. For more on using non disclosure agreements (NDA) in China, check out, “Why Non Disclosures (NDAs) Alone Are Not Enough For China.

4. Product Quality and Payment Terms. The rule here is simple. Do not make final payment to your Chinese manufacturer until you are confident you will be getting an on time shipment of the correct items and quantities at the quality standards you require. This usually means you must incur inspection costs in China and provide for a clear procedure for dealing with these problems as they arise. You must take the lead on this. You cannot depend on the OEM manufacturer to do this for you.

5. Use comprehensive OEM Agreements with each manufacturer. Small and medium sized businesses often enter into OEM manufacturing transactions with a simple purchase order. This is a mistake. The purchase order will not protect you. Your protection depends on your securing a signed written OEM manufacturing agreement with each Chinese manufacturer with which you deal. The ideal OEM agreement will address all of the issues discussed above while also addressing other basic legal issues such as jurisdiction and dispute resolution. This agreement should be in both Chinese and English, since the Chinese language version will control in China. For more on this, check out, “China OEM Agreements. Why Ours Are In Chinese. Flat Out.

If you do the above, you will greatly increase the chances of good results from your China outsourcing. For some more tips on China product outsourcing (including non-legal ones), you should also check out, “The Six (Not Five) Keys To China Quality” and “Six More Keys To Quality Product Made In China.

Photo of Dan Harris Dan Harris

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network. 

Dan is a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

He primarily represents companies doing business in emerging market countries, having spent years building and maintaining a global, professional network.  His work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

He was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, is AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), is rated 10.0 by (also its highest rating), and is a recognized SuperLawyer.

Dan is a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and constantly travels between the United States and Asia. He most commonly speaks on China law issues and is the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog. Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed Dan regarding various aspects of his international law practice.

Dan is licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at his firm, Dan focuses on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.