In working with outsource manufacturing in China, one of our primary goals is to control the molds used in the manufacturing process it is critical to make clear that the foreign buyer owns the physical molds. To accomplish this, our China manufacturing lawyers concentrate on two issues when drafting mold provisions that are part of a larger contract (such as a manufacturing agreement or a product development agreement) or that essentially stand alone as part of a mold ownership contract.
First, we want to make clear that the Chinese factory can use the molds only for producing our client’s product and not for producing for any other party. Second, we want it clear that when our client chooses to move its production to a different factory, it will have the right to take possession of the molds and transport them to the new manufacturing location. Negotiation of these terms is usually quite difficult, since the Chinese manufacturer has a strong incentive to hold molds “hostage” so as to prevent the foreign buyer from moving its manufacturing to a new factory. The only way to succeed is with a stand alone mold ownership agreement or well-crafted mold ownership provisions inserted into a written manufacturing agreement. For why it can be so important to be clear regarding mold ownership in China and some of the specifics on what you should be doing to prevent your Chinese factory from walking away with your molds, check out Product Molds And Tooling In China: Three Things You Must Do to Hang on to Yours and Want Your China-Based Molds? You’re Probably Too Late For That.
As manufacturing in China has become more complex, molds for products have become correspondingly more complex as well. In many cases, the mold embodies most or all of the intellectual property in the product. I can give two examples. First, in some products, the interior mechanism is based entirely on open source hardware. The external enclosure surrounding the mechanism is therefore the primary protectable IP for the product. The IP resides entirely in the molds used to manufacture the product case. The”look and feel” of the enclosure then becomes the identity of the product, and If that “look and feel” is not protected, the foreign designer owns nothing at all in the IP of the product. Without the IP in the molds protected, Chinese factories can freely copy the product.
Second, in some products, the form embodied in the mold is in fact the entire value of the product. Take for example a complex part used in the manufacture of a turbine or jet engine. After all the engineering and testing is complete, what remains? What remains is a single part produced by casting into one or more molds. In this situation, the molds embody the entire intellectual property in that part. and thus the party that owns or controls the intellectual property in the molds is essentially in complete control of the product. More importantly, if no party owns any IP in the molds, the molds are effectively open source, and no one owns any IP in the molds or the product.
Chinese factories have figured this out, making protection of molds much more difficult. In figuring out what to put into our clients’ contractual mold provisions, our China manufacturing attorneys can no longer focus solely on the issue of ownership; we now also must focus on ownership of the intellectual property in the molds as well.
The new mold IP issues frequently arise in two settings. First, in dealing with third party mold fabrication shops in China. Second, in dealing with the Chinese outsource factories themselves. In part 2 of this series, I will address mold IP issues when dealing with third party mold fabricators and in part 3 I will discuss how to approach these issues when dealing with the Chinese factory to which you are outsourcing your manufacturing.