In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how the increasing complexity of products 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 increasingly must 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 Part 2 of this series, I addressed mold IP issues when dealing with third party mold fabricators, sometimes called mold fabrication shops. In this, Part 3, I will discuss the sorts of issues our China lawyers have been seeing lately with Chinese manufacturers on mold issues.
The Chinese manufacturer has produced a series of molds for a product for its foreign buyer. Now that the product has become commercially successful, we often see the following three basic problems arise:
- The Chinese manufacturer announces a substantial increase in the price of the product. This is often a surprise to the foreign buyer, who had expected the per unit price of the product to go down as production increased.
- The Chinese manufacturer is not able to keep up with increased production requirements. This is often a surprise to the foreign buyer, who had been assured by the manufacturer that it has ample capacity for any scale of orders.
- The stress of increased production demand causes the quality level from the Chinese manufacturer to progressively decline, reaching unacceptable levels. This is often a surprise to the foreign buyer, who had expected quality to improve over time.
In response to these issues, the foreign buyer gives notice to its Chinese manufacturer that it intends to move production to a different manufacturer, often a direct competitor of the current manufacturer. In the past, the issues that arose at this stage mostly focused on ownership of the physical molds. This issue can be resolved by a relatively simple mold ownership agreement. To the extent that a mold ownership agreement resolves the issues, this is old news. See Product Molds And Tooling In China: Three Things You Must Do to Hang on to Yours.
However, in the past year we have seen Chinese factories make arguments (like those below) that render the situation far more complex:
- The Chinese factory says: “It is true you paid the fabrication fee for the molds. But that fee only covered the material costs and the time involved. However, in addition to that, we at the factory spent a lot of time and money doing the CAD drawings and related specifications required to fabricate the molds and we also spent additional engineering time in integrating the molds into our production process. Before you can take the molds, you have to compensate us for those costs. We won’t even charge you a markup. Just pay us for our out of pocket costs.” Then the factory provides an unreasonably high invoice for those costs and if you do not pay the invoice, the factory will continue to hold your molds hostage. This has become almost standard practice in outsource manufacturing, particularly in southern China. It is therefore essential for foreign designers to make clear in a written contract that all amounts paid for molds include both design and fabrication costs and that no additional payments will be required when the foreign buyer seeks to take possession of the molds.
- The Chinese factory says: “It is true that you own the molds and you can take them whenever you want. However, we did all the design work on those molds so we own the design embodied by the molds. We will give you a license to use the molds in production in another factory. However, that license is limited. You have no right to copy the molds. We, on the other hand, have the right to copy the molds and we have the right to use the mold design for our own production or to provide copies of the molds to third party factories for their own production. The only thing you own is the physical object. You do not own anything else.”
- In the more extreme case, the Chinese factory says: “We did all the design work for the molds so we own that design and we already registered a design patent in the molds. Since we did all the work, we are the inventor for patent purposes. It does not matter that you paid us for the molds. We still remain the inventor and our design patent protects us. You can have the physical molds, but if you want to use those molds for production at a different factory, you must pay us a royalty fee.” This royalty is then quoted at a price so hight that you cannot economically have your product produced at a third party facility.\
- Lately, the more honest Chinese factories make the situation clear. The foreign buyer pays for fabricating the mold, but that payment does not convey any ownership interest in the molds to the foreign buyer. The Chinese factory does the design work and the Chinese factory owns the molds. The Chinese factory will agree to use the molds only for the purpose of producing the product for the foreign buyer, however, the foreign buyer has no right to move the molds to any other factory. In this setting, some Chinese factories will say that you are free to make new molds at your new factory, but some will assert ownership to the mold design and not allow you to have copies made at the new factory. Often Chinese factories will make this contention even when they do not have a registered design patent. To them the situation is obvious. They both designed the mold and arranged for its fabrication and so they own all rights in the mold without any need to register a design patent. Whether this position would be supported by a court is unclear. But since it is unclear, most Chinese factories will refuse to work with the new factory. What is so interesting about this approach is that the Chinese factory is clear about its intent from the beginning. The Chinese factory intends to hold the foreign buyer hostage by guaranteeing that the foreign buyer cannot go to any other factory in China as an alternative manufacturer of the product. By holding the foreign buyer hostage, when the Chinese factory raises its price or delivers the products late or produces defective products, the foreign party is pretty much trapped. It has no place else to go and no real leverage for dealing with the issues. We are getting a call a week from foreign companies in these situations, with little that can be done beyond essentially starting over.
This is where outsource manufacturing is going in China. Foreign product designers need to deal with it. At a first level, the foreign designer can enter into written contracts that provide protection. However, at a second level, if the Chinese factory intends the “hostage” result, it will reject signing a contract that will prevent that. When that happens the foreign designer is forced to face reality and decide whether manufacturing its new and innovative product in a setting where it is hostage to a Chinese factory makes economic sense or not. Or whether it can or should try to find another manufacturer. Our clients often argue that it does make sense. We are not so sure.