Dude, Where's My Printing Plates? - A question of ownership

I was recently wandering round a fabulous packaging plant and in the printing area, I sidestepped into a room which had thousands upon thousands of printing plates in storage. Looking at the dates I could see some go back to the early 2000s - clearly one off jobs which hadn't been repeated. The company said that it was their policy to keep these plates until instructed otherwise by the customer, even though the chance of re-order was nigh on impossible.


This is a very rare occurrence, but offered a different perspective to a rarely resolved debate had between brands and manufacturers. That is, the ownership of printing plates and cylinders. This debate is wrought with controversy, legal issues and can be argued to verge on intellectual property theft.

Technical Arguments

From a production point of view, a manufacturer would always want to keep the plates as they have been made specifically for their machines. Every plate or cylinder has an extensive process behind it, whereby a platemaker/cylinder maker has tested the printing press to ensure optimum results. In addition, the initial investment from a customer in plates tends to be construed as a commitment to the manufacturer/merchant for the lifetime of that design. This assumption is valid to some degree, as nobody wants to write off thousands of pounds worth of investment to reinvest in the same thing again. However, this assumption remains as such, an assumption. Never assume...

Plates are not always compatible with other printing presses, so requesting them back from a factory is not an action frequently carried out. Different presses use different inks, varying ink densities, different anilox rollers, different cylinders for plates to be adhered to, different tapes to secure plates...you can see what I'm getting at here.

A packaging company will therefore always tell you to leave them where they are and maintain the status quo. They have every right to, as the above demonstrates.

But...

If two printing presses have exactly the same components, same inks, same rollers, same doctor blades, same software, same plate format, same tapes etc then the above position becomes less tenable. Although the way CMYK process images (photographic) are prepared may still cause difficulty in switching presses, if there are no images on the design and is essentially 'linework' - common in pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, fitness industries - then the switch is very much achievable.

Legal Arguments

Each printing plate contains a brand's intellectual property. They have also been purchased by a brand. Therefore, a brand owns the plates. It really is as simple as that. Any refusal to part with the plates and returning them to their rightful owner is theft, both of physical goods and IP.

There is an additional complexity when dealing with a trader/merchant/broker who doesn't manufacture themselves. For a period between the trader purchasing the plates and the end user paying their invoice, there is a huge grey area whereby it could be argued the trader owns the plates, as they have paid for them. I believe this needs clearing up as if the trader then invoices a job without adding specific lines for plates, there is no substantial evidence that the brand has any ownership whatsoever.

What to do

A question that has been asked to me a number of times by brands who want to switch supplier and at least try to see if plates are compatible. I always advise to first request data sheets from the printing press of the incumbent and the press of the new supplier. Request plate data from incumbent and new repro houses processing the job. This data should all be looked at by the technical team at the new manufacturer who will come up with an answer. They may have a vested interest in you buying new plates through them (who's going to give up a business opportunity?) so an impartial person may be required to negotiate and discuss for you. Packaging consultants are the best people for these jobs. Also, they know where presses are compatible and can actually help source supply.

Conclusion

You own the plates. They belong to you. If you've been refused repossession of plates the packaging company is acting illegally. Make sure you have the paperwork, and you can go down the legal route. It only needs one court case for the loopholes to close, more ethical practice in the packaging industry and will undoubtedly allow the 'Packaging and Films Association' and 'British Printing Industries Federation' to mediate between aggrieved parties in the future, offering support to brands as well as the packaging industry.

Matt
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