Three artists are accusing fast-fashion clothing brand Shein of using an AI-based algorithm to spot trendy designs and commit widespread intellectual property theft in conjunction with a disorienting corporate structure that has allowed the $66 billion company to avoid legal repercussion.
On Tuesday, July 11, visual artists Krista Perry, Larissa Martinez — otherwise known as “Larissa Blintz” — and Jay Baron filed suit against the Chinese online retailer in a California federal court, alleging that Shein and its related entities Roadget Business and Zoetop Business Company employ a “byzantine shell game of corporate structure” in order to skirt legal consequence for stealing artists’ original work.
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“Shein’s design ‘algorithm’ could not work without generating the kinds of exact copies that can greatly damage an independent designer’s career — especially because Shein’s artificial intelligence is smart enough to misappropriate the pieces with the greatest commercial potential,” the lawsuit reads.
The suit highlights several instances in which the clothing brand “produced, distributed, and sold exact copies of their creative work” — a move that is “part and parcel of Shein’s ‘design’ process and organizational DNA.” This so-called design process, the plaintiffs allege, is partially carried out via an elaborate algorithm that identifies fashion trends for the brand to then reverse-engineer and sell through their own store.
The filing outlines the experiences of the artists that led up to the suit. In Perry’s case, the Massachusetts illustrator and printmaker claims she was led through a dizzying maze of various email addresses, then offered an informal settlement of $500 after she complained to the brand for ripping off her “Make it Fun” print.
“I noticed that Shein has been selling my work as both wall art and phone cases without my permission or approval. It is incredibly disheartening, insulting, and downright evil to profit off of artists without their knowledge or permission,” Perry said, as quoted in the suit.
Perry’s work was allegedly targeted by the company again in 2020, when she says Shein duplicated her “Floral Bloom” textile piece. Shortly after putting the blanket up for sale, the Massachusetts designer claims the company released its own knock-off version on its own platform.
Shein has not responded to Hyperallergic‘s request for comment.
Blintz, who runs the Los Angeles-based clothing brand Miracle Eye, says she was victim of a similar scheme when the clothing company allegedly replicated her copyrighted “Orange Daisies” overall design. Likewise, Shein is also accused of copying Baron’s “Trying My Best” patch design that he originally created in 2016 and copyrighted a year later.
“I was floored when I first saw Shein’s version of my work. How could it be that they copied me exactly, even the precise layout? I thought it must be some kind of mix-up,” Baron told Hyperallergic over email. “Now, of course, I have learned that this is simply what they do — and in the process they have ruined one of my best designs, one that I am proud of.”
In addition to copyright infringement and intellectual property theft, the plaintiffs specifically point to the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to call out Shein’s “multiplicity of entities to avoid liability.” The federal law was passed in 1970 as a subsection of the Organized Crime Control Act. In the suit, the artists argue that the clothing company’s “de-facto association of entities” that facilitates “criminal infringement and other racketeering activity” directly violates the RICO statute.
“With so many entities, Shein can always point to someone or something else as being responsible for whatever wrong they are accused of,” attorney David Erikson of Erickson Law Group told Hyperallergic.
“If you accuse of them copying, they claim it was an independent designer, or even an independent seller on their marketplace. They do this informally, but they also do it in court, and it has proved effective in decreasing the amounts of settlements they must pay.”
It’s not the first time the fast-fashion giant has faced intellectual property theft allegations. In the past three years alone, the apparel company has been the subject of at least 50 federal lawsuits relating to trademark or copyright infringement, according to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal.
Shein also recently made headlines for hosting a cherry-picked influencer tour through one of its factories. The company has been accused of several other offenses including deliberate tax avoidance, multiple human rights and labor practice violations, environmental damage, and goods contaminated with lead and other hazardous chemicals — which were also included in Tuesday’s filing.