In part 1 of this series, I talked about how the increasing complexity of products being made in China has led to a corresponding increase in the complexity of the molds for those products, and of how that means our China attorneys are increasingly needing to draft contracts to protect our client’s IP within those molds.
I concluded the first part of this series by noting how most mold IP issues arise in two settings: dealing with third party mold fabrication shops in China and dealing with the Chinese outsource factories themselves. In this part 2 of my series, I address mold IP issues when dealing with third party mold fabricators, sometimes called mold fabrication shops. .
The issues that typically arise with mold fabrication shops arise because of a change in procedure that no one has really noticed. It is standard procedure to provide that the Chinese factory that is making your product is responsible for fabricating the molds for the product. In the old days, the same factory almost always made the molds and the product. However, it has now become more common for the factory to outsource mold fabrication to a third party. In many cases, even the design of the molds is outsourced to that third party.
What this means is that a mold agreement with your factory that has been drafted to control the ownership of the molds and to control the IP in the product is compromised or eliminated when all of the specifications and the responsibility for fabrication gets sent off to a third party mold manufacturer. Given the economics of mold fabrication in China, it is not likely that the mold fabricator will use the mold design for its own purposes. Rather, the fundamental risk here is that the mold manufacturer will sell copies of the molds to other Chinese factories who have an interest in cloning your product.
This type of cloning is of course a thriving business in China. Foreign designers often wonder how a terrific copy of their product got to market before they have even gone into full scale production. Well this is how it happens: the mold manufacturers conduct a thriving trade in selling the “latest” molds. Though it is common to blame the factories for this leakage, this blame is often misplaced. Your China factory has an incentive to keep the mold for its own use since once the mold gets out into the world, the molds are then used by your factory’s competitors. When this happens, the Chinese factory is damaged in much the same way as the foreign designer.
Though losing one’s molds via a third party mold fabrication shop is an enormous risk, few foreign designers and virtually no Chinese factories make much to control the mold fabricator. In other words, clearly drafted written contracts dealing with this issue are rarely entered into between the Chinese factory and the mold fabricator. The foreign designer not only hardly ever enters into any sort of contract with the mold fabricator, the foreign designer normally does not even know the identity of the fabricator. This leaves a gigantic hole in IP protection. This hole can and should be closed through a simple set of contracts.
Consider also what this uncontrolled release of the design of the product means in terms of intellectual property in the product. Many products designs are protected primarily as trade secrets. When the design is released to a third party fabrication shop with no written agreement, the secrecy in that product is broken, and this eliminates any trade secrecy protection.
Consider also the issue of patent protection. In acquiring a patent anywhere in the world, one of the first questions that has to be answered is who invented the item. In a case where the design of the mold has been outsourced to a third party fab shop, the question of who is actually the inventor is now unclear. Is it the foreign designer who developed the basic idea? Is it the Chinese factory that did some preliminary drawings? Or is it the mold fabricator that did the detailed drawings and produced the final working model? Or is it all three, each entitled to an uncertain percentage of the patent?
With this sort of tripartite structure, the usual answer is that no one owns any IP in the molds: no patents, no trade secrets. Often that then means that no one owns any IP in the product itself. This obviously then leads to disaster in the commercialization phase for the product.
In part 3 of this series, I will consider how to approach these issues when dealing with the Chinese factory to which you are outsourcing your manufacturing. Note that though the parties differ from the situation I discuss above, the fundamental issue remains the same: when a third party does the design and fabrication work on behalf of a foreign designer, who owns the IP in the resulting design will be at issue. For the product, the question is who owns the design for the product. For the molds, the question is who owns the design in the molds. Where the molds ARE the product, this becomes a core issue that cannot be ignored.