Artists accuse fashion brand Shein of using AI to steal their designs

Three artists accuse fast-fashion clothing brand Shein of using an AI-powered algorithm to spot trendy designs and commit widespread intellectual property theft along with a disorienting corporate structure that allowed the $66 billion company to avoid legal repercussions.

Tuesday 11 July visual Artists Krista Perry, Larissa Martinez otherwise known as “Larissa Blintz” and Jay Baron have filed a lawsuit against the Chinese online retailer in 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 avoid legal consequences for the theft of original works of artists.

“Sheins’ design ‘algorithm’ couldn’t work without generating the kind of exact copies that can greatly damage an independent designer’s career, especially since Sheins’ AI is smart enough to misappropriate pieces with the major commercial potential,” the lawsuit reads.

The lawsuit highlights multiple instances where the clothing brand “manufactured, distributed and sold exact copies of its own creative work,” a move that is “integral to Sheins’ ‘design’ process and organizational DNA.” This so-called design process, the plaintiffs argue, is done in part by an elaborate algorithm that identifies fashion trends for the brand to then reverse engineer and sell through their store.

The filing outlines the artists’ experiences that led to the lawsuit. In Perry’s case, the Massachusetts illustrator and typographer says she was led through a dizzying maze of various email addresses, then offered an informal $500 settlement after complaining to the brand about tearing up her print” Make it Fun”.

I have noticed that Shein has been selling my work as both wall art and a phone case without my permission or approval. It is incredibly disheartening, offensive and downright evil to profit from artists without their knowledge or permission, Perry said, as quoted in the lawsuit.

Perry’s work would come under fire from the company again in 2020, when it claims Shein duplicated its “Floral Bloom” piece of fabric. Shortly after putting the blanket on sale, the Massachusetts designer says the company has released its own knock-off version on its own platform.

Shein didn’t answer Hyperallergicrequest for comment.

Blintz, who runs Los Angeles-based clothing brand Miracle Eye, says she fell victim to a similar scheme when the clothing company allegedly replicated its overarching copyrighted Orange Daisies design. Similarly, 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 blown away when I first saw Shein’s version of my work. How is it possible that they copied me exactly, even the precise layout? I thought it must be some kind of confusion,” Baron said Hyperallergic by email. “Now, of course, I’ve learned that this is simply what they do, and in the process they’ve ruined one of my best projects, one I’m 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 address 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 lawsuit, the artists argue that the apparel company’s “de facto association of entities” that facilitates “criminal misdemeanor and other racketeering activities” directly violate the RICO statute.

“With so many entities, Shein can always hold someone or something else accountable for any wrong they are accused of,” said attorney David Erikson of Erickson Law Group Hyperallergic.

“If you accuse them of copying, they claim it was an indie designer or even an indie seller on their marketplace. They do it informally, but they also do it in court, and it has proven effective in reducing the settlement amounts they have to pay.”

It’s not the first time the fast fashion giant has faced allegations of intellectual property theft. In the past three years alone, the apparel company has been the subject of at least 50 federal lawsuits related to trademark or copyright infringement, according to an investigation by the Wall Street Journal.

Shein also recently made headlines for hosting a tour of handpicked influencers through one of her factories. The company was charged with several other offenses including willful tax avoidance, multiple violations of human rights and labor practices, environmental damage and goods contaminated with lead and other dangerous chemicals which were also included in Tuesday’s filing.

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