In recent weeks, Chinese online retailer Shein, currently the world’s largest fashion retailer, has come under fire for alleged copyright infringement and racketeering. A lawsuit filed by three designers, Krista Perry, Larissa Martinez, and Jay Baron, claims that the online fashion giant has copied their designs using a “secretive algorithm” to reproduce them on its fast-fashion clothing. This news surfaced in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, with the artists claiming that Shein violated federal laws for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, known as RICO.
Alleged Algorithm Exploitation
The plaintiffs allege that the Chinese retailer’s edge in the market is down to the “secretive algorithm” and not solely the merit of their designs. The lawsuit suggests that Shein’s ability to identify trending art and the company’s process of copying these designs directly from the artists have raised serious societal concerns that surpass data security and privacy issues. While Shein’s corporate website states that it uses “cutting-edge technologies and processes in design and sourcing,” there is no detailed explanation of the technology employed. When reached for comments, a Shein spokesperson stated, “Shein takes all claims of infringement seriously, and we take swift action when complaints are raised by valid IP rights holders.” However, Shein has yet to offer clarity on its algorithm use and why it deems the lawsuit without merit.
Pattern of Infringement
The allegations extend beyond isolated incidents, with the lawsuit accusing Shein of a consistent pattern of copyright infringement as part of its daily product output. According to the lawsuit, the reproduced items aren’t mere interpretations of the original designs but are “truly exact copies of copyrightable graphic design.” It also contends that the Chinese company has benefitted from committing these infringements repeatedly, and this practice shows no signs of abating.
Defendants and Damages
Jay Baron, Larissa Blintz, and Krista Perry have reported direct damages due to Shein’s actions. These artists have seen significant business losses, diversion of trade, profit loss, and damage to their reputations. Baron’s “Trying My Best” artwork and Martinez’s “Orange Daisies” clothing are just two examples of designs that Shein has allegedly copied.
As part of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs also highlight the significant hurdles they face in bringing Shein to court due to its decentralized structure. The claimants allege that Shein is “a loose and ever-changing association-in-fact of entities and individuals,” making it incredibly difficult to find an appropriate defendant, even with legal representation. Due to these challenges, the claimants have invoked the RICO Act.
The RICO Act Explained
Originally designed to combat the exploitation of legal businesses by organized crime, the RICO Act of 1970 has been used in recent years to prosecute a range of white-collar crimes, from the Enron accounting scandal to Bernie Madoff’s financial pyramid scheme. The RICO Act allows for the pursuit of continuous illegal activity, such as extortion or fraud, carried out by an enterprise. In the case of Shein, the plaintiffs allege that the company’s pattern of copyright infringement constitutes racketeering. The lawsuit claims that “it is well established that egregious copyright infringement constitutes racketeering,” drawing on similar cases against Shein.
The Mystery Behind Shein
The lawsuit not only targets Shein’s alleged illegal practices but also sheds light on the opaque nature of the company’s structure and its founder, Chinese entrepreneur Chris Xu, also known as Xu Yangtian. Not much is known about Xu, with conflicting reports about his background and education. His company, founded in 2012, is now valued at almost $30 billion, with annual sales surpassing the combined totals of H&M and Zara. This lawsuit against Shein reveals the ongoing struggle for original content creators and designers to protect their work in an era dominated by fast fashion. It calls into question the ethics of using technology to identify and reproduce trends, especially when original creators are not given due recognition or compensation for their work.