Non Disclosure Agreement

The other day, I did a post on why Non-Disclosure Agreements are so often critical for those doing business with China. Within a few hours of that post, entitled, “China Non Disclosure Agreements (NDA). A Really Good Thing,” my co-blogger, Steve Dickinson, was pointing out how if we were going to talk about non disclosure agreements (commonly referred to as an NDA), we should also discuss how and why we nearly always recommend such agreements contain non-use and non-circumvention provisions as well. I agreed with Steve, suggested he write such a post, and, voilà, here it is:

Most lawyers tell their clients who are doing outsourcing work in China that they need an NDA. Many businesses I work with see this as an example of an attorney demand with little practical application. They see the typical NDA as an unnecessary and unenforceable “piece of paper” that they only use if their legal department forces them to do so. The normal comment I receive is “1) how can I prove the information was revealed, 2) how can I prove what was revealed was actually confidential and 3) how can I enforce the agreement even if I could prove the facts?” I am usually dealing with experienced business people and, frankly, their concerns are well founded. In fact, most of the NDAs I see in China are useless because they are both directed at the wrong issues and are unenforceable. Pulling your English language NDA and having it translated into Chinese is pretty much a complete waste of time.

When we work with sourcing companies and related OEM manufacturing arrangements, we almost never just draft a “straight NDA.” Instead, we draft a “non-disclosure/non-use/non-circumvention agreement” that we refer to as an NNN Agreement. When a foreign company contracts with a Chinese company to manufacture a product, the NNN focuses on the three primary “bad acts” that the foreign company needs to prevent:

  1. The foreign company does not want its design revealed to a third party. To prevent this, a non-disclosure agreement is required. Though this is an important issue in China, disclosure to an entirely unrelated third party is actually fairly uncommon. The bigger risk is disclosure to a related party. Many Chinese businesses have multiple subsidiaries and manufacturing is often done through a large network of subcontractors. Chinese companies are quite relaxed about passing around information within this network. A good non-disclosure agreement must focus on control of information within a network that the Chinese manufacturer itself may not consider as falling within the scope of a non-disclosure requirement.
  2. The biggest concern of the foreign company is usually not disclosure to a third party. The real concern is that the foreign company does not want the Chinese manufacturer to make use of the product design to compete with the foreign company. For this purpose a non-use agreement is required. A good non-use agreement focuses on two issues. First, the agreement identifies the applicable intellectual property or confidential information of the foreign company and then authorizes the Chinese manufacturer to use that property/information solely to manufacture the product for the foreign company. Second, the agreement requires the manufacturer agree not to manufacture the product or any similar product under any circumstances, other than for the foreign company. This second provision is the most important as it prevents the Chinese manufacturer from manufacturing a similar product under its own trademark. Since many products are not covered by patent or other IP protections, the only way to prevent such “copy-cat” manufacturing is with such a non-use provision. Normal IP protections will not work, so a contractual agreement is essential. Virtually all “off the shelf” NDAs fail to account for this.
  3. The foreign company also does not want the Chinese manufacturer to go around the foreign company by selling the product directly to the foreign company’s existing or future customers. After the Chinese manufacturer has manufactured the product for some time, it will likely have learned about the market and the customers for the product. It is only natural for the Chinese manufacturer at some point to go to the ultimate customer and say: “Look, WE are the company ACTUALLY making this product and since there is no patent or other IP protection applicable to the product, why don’t you just buy the product from us, for less?” This is called circumvention and it is extremely common in China. If you want to avoid getting “cut out” in this way, a non-circumvention agreement is required. Again, an “off the shelf” NDA is not going to cover this.

Most non disclosure agreements I see are just modifications of the standard NDA used in the United States or in England and those agreements simply do not deal with the special problems of related parties in China and they treat non-use/non-circumvention either inadequately or not at all. Only a carefully thought out NNN Agreement that thoroughly resolves treats all of these issues is of any real value in China.

Stay tuned, as the day after tomorrow we will talk about the other typical fatal flaw of “off the shelf” NDAs and why those NDAs are usually not enforceable in China.

Years ago, our Chinese lawyers used to get a fairly steady stream of panicked American callers who would call us a month or so after returning from China where they had showed their product, prototype or product drawings to Chinese OEM companies.These Americans were calling us in a panic because they had shown their product, prototype, or product design drawings around China (in some instances they had even left it there) and now everyone there had gone silent.

They would typically ask if we thought a Chinese company might be using their information to copy their product. I would then ask them if they had required the Chinese companies to sign any sort of secresy agreement before turning over the information. After a long pause, they would invariably answer, “no,” and then usually ask about suing. I would then explain how the copying of a product in this sort of situation was probably a violation of Chinese law, but . . . .

I realized the other day that these calls have almost completely ceased and I think the increasing use of nondisclosure agreements is why. Our more typical call now is from a consultant or manufacturer seeking our help in drafting a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) before heading off to China with a prototype/product/drawing for OEM quotes.

Smart.

We love NDAs for foreign companies doing business in China. They are simple, effective, and telling.

Simple, because they tend not to vary all that much from company to company or from product to product.  We like putting in an attorneys’ fee provision and a provision regarding injunctive relief. We always do them in both English and Chinese, nearly always for a flat fee. We virtually always make Chinese the official language.

Effective, because the Chinese courts are getting familiar with them and will generally enforce them.

Telling, because we have found that if a Chinese manufacturer refuses to sign one, this is probably not the Chinese manufacturer with whom you want to do business.

NDAs:  Do not leave home without one.

Even better though is to use what we call an NNN Agreement.  When we work with sourcing companies and related OEM manufacturing arrangements, we almost never just draft a “straight NDA.” We instead prefer to draft a “non-disclosure/non-use/non-circumvention agreement” that we refer to as an NNN Agreement. When a foreign company contracts with a Chinese company to manufacture a product, the NNN focuses on the three primary “bad acts” that the foreign company needs to prevent:

  • The foreign company does not want its design revealed to a third party. To prevent this, a non-disclosure provision is required. Though this is an important issue in China, disclosure to an entirely unrelated third party is actually fairly uncommon. The bigger risk is disclosure to a related party. Many Chinese businesses have multiple subsidiaries and manufacturing is often done through a large network of subcontractors. Chinese companies are quite relaxed about passing around information within this network. A good non-disclosure agreement must focus on control of information within a network that the Chinese manufacturer itself may not consider as falling within the scope of a non-disclosure requirement.
  • Usually, the biggest concern for the foreign company is to prevent the Chinese manufacturer from making use of the product design to compete with the foreign company. For this purpose a non-use agreement is required. A good non-use agreement focuses on two issues. First, the agreement identifies the applicable intellectual property or confidential information of the foreign company and then authorizes the Chinese manufacturer to use that property/information solely to manufacture the product for the foreign company. Second, the agreement requires the manufacturer agree not to manufacture the product or any similar product under any circumstances, other than for the foreign company. This second provision is the most important as it prevents the Chinese manufacturer from manufacturing a similar product under its own trademark. Since many products are not covered by patent or other IP protections, the only way to prevent such “copy-cat” manufacturing is with such a non-use provision. Normal IP protections will not work, so a contractual agreement is essential. Since nearly all “off the shelf” American-style NDAs completely fail to account for this they are virtually worthless for China.
  • The foreign company also does not usually want the Chinese manufacturer to go around the foreign company by selling the product directly to the foreign company’s existing or future customers. After the Chinese manufacturer has manufactured the product for some time, it will likely have learned about the market and the customers for the product. It is only natural for the Chinese manufacturer at some point to go to the ultimate customer and say: “Look, WE are the company ACTUALLY making this product and since there is no patent or other IP protection applicable to the product, why don’t you just buy the product from us, for less?” This is called circumvention and it is extremely common in China. If you want to avoid getting “cut out” in this way, a non-circumvention provision agreement is required. Again, an “off the shelf” American-style NDA is not going to cover this.

Most non disclosure agreements we see are just modifications of the standard NDA used in the United States or in England and those agreements simply do not deal with the special problems of related parties in China and they treat non-use/non-circumvention either inadequately or not at all. Only a carefully thought out NNN Agreement that thoroughly resolves all of these issues is of any real value in China.

NNN Agreements work well for China so don’t leave home without one.

China’s recently stepped up effort to root out foreign companies doing business in China without being registered to do so has caused a rash of China consultants to retain the China lawyers in my firm.

From our work in forming China WFOEs for these consultants, we have learned that many China consultants are falling dangerously short in various other legal aspects of their business as well. Indeed, if we were to single out the foreign businesses in China most often guilty of underestimating their legal risks, it would be China consultants. China consultants seem to have been in China so long that they have lost sight of the fact that when push comes to shove (or as we lawyers like to say, when a deep and easy pocket needs to be found) they are the American/European/Australian company that is going to need to answer for what happened. These China hands also fail to recognize how much China has changed in the last decade and that doing business in China today is just not the same as it was five years ago. Not even close. If you are a Western consultant hired by a Western company to assist in China, you must realize that if something goes wrong for your client you will be your client’s first choice for legal redress.

What can go wrong? And what can you as a China Consultant do to prevent or ameliorate it? Overall corporate planning to protect your personal assets is an absolutely necessary first step. Beyond that however, and more specifically to China, you can do a lot to protect your client and thereby protect yourself.

We have seen the biggest problems with sourcing consultants that assist in finding Chinese manufacturers. A typical sourcing project, might go like this:

  1. Western company retains a product sourcing consultant to find the best Chinese widget manufacturer in terms of cost/quality/dependability.
  2. Consultant requests and secures sample widget from manufacturer.
  3. Consultant meets with countless Chinese manufacturers in search of the best one.
  4. Consultant recommends company Z in China to manufacture 100 million widgets.
  5. Consultant is to be paid a percentage of the manufacturing costs.
  6. Company Z starts manufacturing the widgets.

By this point, I am guessing the sourcing consultants reading this are saying, “yes,” while the China attorneys out there are already apoplectic. Let’s deconstruct this hypothetical project and note where the consultant has potentially harmed the client and needlessly taken on huge liabilities for itself.

  • The sourcing consultant agreed to find “the best” widget manufacturer. Is that best in China or best in the world? What if the widget manufacturer charges one hundred dollars a widget for the 100 million widgets, but your client’s competitor finds another widget manufacturer who will do it for ninety dollars. Are you liable for the difference? Even worse, what if your client’s competitor gets the same Chinese widget manufacturer to do 100 million widgets for ten dollars less? Do you really think a US jury is going to believe you were doing your best when your fee was a percentage of the final costs? Are you responsible for the Chinese manufacturer’s late deliveries? For the Chinese manufacturer’s bad product?  Is it clear exactly what your percentage is going to be based and have you set things up so that your client cannot just go around you? The Solution: Use a well-crafted written contract to make clear exactly what you will and will not do. Put in a non-circumvention provision to make sure you get paid.
  • If you take a sample to China and start showing it to potential manufacturers without FIRST putting in place various safeguards, you are courting disaster. The sample could be used for counterfeiting. We had a consultant call one of our China lawyers in a panic after returning from China to learn that one of the manufacturers to which he had shown a sample had already started manufacturing the product for someone else using the consultant client’s trademark which it had gleaned from the Internet. The Solution: Never show a sample or product plan or reveal your trade name(s) without first making the Chinese manufacturer sign a China-centric NNN Agreement (essentially a hopped up NDA that protects against competition, circumvention and disclosure). Chinese manufacturers tend to be quite familiar with NNN agreements and if you give them a simple and reasonable one, in Chinese, they will sign it.
  • You the consultant must do more than simply negotiate the price and delivery dates or you should at least make clear in writing that these are your only tasks. Typically, product sourcing consultants oversee the OEM contract with the manufacturer and by doing so, they face major liability issues if that contract is not up to snuff. You are the “China guy” and your client is counting on you to guide it through China’s business minefields. You are the one who is supposed to know anything and everything about what it takes to do business in China. Equally importantly, with the manufacturing of its product, your client is probably turning over to the manufacturer all sorts of critical intellectual property. Your client probably thinks that its existing patents, trademarks and copyrights will protect it in China, but a court will expect you as the China expert to know better. The Solution: Put in writing with your client that you will not be providing it with legal advice and that it will need to retain its own lawyer to draft the OEM agreement with the Chinese manufacturer. Put in writing that it is your client’s responsibility to protect its intellectual property in China and that to do so, it must register its IP in China, either through a lawyer with whom you connect them or independently).

Just remember that your client sees you as the expert at doing business in China and it is looking to you for help in all areas and if you fall short in any way, you are at risk for a lawsuit.

China consultant, protect thyself.