I am coming off two straight days of speeches before and meetings with start-up hardware technology companies here in Shenzhen. Yesterday, in Hardware Co-Development in China I wrote about how our China lawyers far too often see situations where a foreign developer of a hardware or internet of things product loses that product to the Chinese manufacturer after having spent years in co-developing that product with the Chinese manufacturer.
The foreign designer and the Chinese factory will work together for months or years to develop a commercially viable product and then when the prototype is finally finished, the question then becomes who actually owns the prototype: the foreign developer that came up with the idea or the China factory. The foreign developer says it owns the product while the Chinese factory says it owns it. Who does legally own it? Way more often than not, the Chinese factory does.
How does all this come about? The standard scenario goes something like the following. A foreign product designer comes to China and works with a Chinese factory to commercialize an innovative hardware or IoT product design. In a cooperative co-development setting, the foreign party and the Chinese factory work together to create the prototype of the commercial version of the new product. All the work is done on a purchase order basis, with no written contract or other documentation.
At the end of the development cycle, the Chinese factory announces to the foreign developer that the prototypes are completed. The factory retains the prototypes in anticipation of moving to the manufacturing phase. However when the parties move to the manufacturing phase, it is normal for something to go wrong. This can happen in two ways. First, the Chinese factory surprises the foreign designer by substantially increasing the projected unit price for the product or it announces that it cannot meet the quantity or delivery date requirements for the product. Second, the factory consistently manufactures product with substantial product defect/quality control issues.
Facing these problems, the foreign party confronts the Chinese factory and announces that it is going to take the prototypes and have them manufactured by another factory. The Chinese manufacturer replies: “you cannot do that. We own all the IP contained in the product. We agree that we will manufacture the product for you exclusively for as long as you are willing to order on our terms. But you cannot take that prototype anywhere else. Only our company has the right to manufacture that product. And, if you are not successful in making substantial sales, we will cut you off and market the product ourselves.”
The real problem with this scenario is that in most cases the factory is absolutely correct about the legal situation concerning the intellectual property in the new product. Stated simply, absent a written contract to the contrary, it is generally true in this setting that the factory DOES own the intellectual property in the product.
This sad result for the foreign company — this situation where the foreign company loses all that it has been focused on for the last many months or years — is due to the failure of the foreign designer to properly document the co-development process. If properly documented, this unfortunate result can be avoided.
In my next post, I will explain how to avoid losing your hardware/IoT product.
We will be discussing the practical aspects of Chinese law and how it impacts business there. We will be telling you what works and what does not and what you as a businessperson can do to use the law to your advantage. Our aim is to assist businesses already in China or planning to go into China, not to break new ground in legal theory or policy.