Fast fashion retailer Shein accused of racketeering and copyright infringement in lawsuit

Fast fashion retailer Shein accused of racketeering and copyright infringement in lawsuit

Fast fashion retailer Shein has been accused by independent designers of infringement-related racketeering activities in a new lawsuit.

According to The Fashion Law, a lawsuit was filed on Tuesday (11 July) in California federal court that accused the clothing giant of using a “secretive algorithm” to identify trending art and allegedly reproducing the independent designs for its fast fashion website.

The three independent artists suing Shein – Krista Perry, Larissa Martinez, and Jay Baron – claimed both Shein and its parent company, Zoetop Business Company, Ltd, engaged in “produc[ing], distribut[ing], and selling exact copies of their creative works,” which they allege is “part and parcel of Shein’s ‘design’ process and organizational DNA.”

In the suit, Perry, Martinez and Baron claim Shein replicated “truly exact copies of [their] copyrightable graphic designs” such as Berry’s artwork titled “Make It Fun” and Blintz’s “Orange Daises” design. Barron’s “Trying My Best” artwork, which they claim was also copied by Shein, is not only a registered copyright but the phrase was also trademarked by Barron. As a result, the plaintiffs argue that they “have suffered and will continue to suffer substantial damage” to their businesses and “a diminishment in the value of their designs and art, their rights, and their reputations”.

In the complaint, the plaintiffs allege that Shein created a “secretive algorithm” to identify growing fashion trends and “produce very small quantities of [its] item for sale” – as 100-200 units per SKU – in the case that an artist claims “the design was stolen”.

“The brand has made billions by creating a secretive algorithm that astonishingly determines nascent fashion trends – and by coupling it with a corporate structure, including production and fulfillment schemes, that are perfectly executed to grease the wheels of the algorithm, including its unsavory and illegal aspects,” the artists argue in the suit.

“When Shein copies a small or independent designer, the most likely outcome (without brand protection specialists and specialized software on the lookout) is that the infringement will go unnoticed,” the complaint reads.

The lawsuit named Chris Xu as the maker behind the algorithm, a “mysterious tech genius” who has allegedly made Shein “the world’s top clothing company through high technology, not high design.”

While Shein has faced many lawsuits in recent years, the newest complaint is notable for its Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) claim. RICO is a federal law designed to combat organized crime in the United States, and individuals or organisations can use the RICO Act to file civil claims against racketeering activities performed as an ongoing criminal enterprise.

Another requirement to file a RICO claim is that the offending party is not just an individual or business but a criminal organization, as the suit claims Shein’s alleged infringement activity is “committed not by a single entity, but by a de-facto association of entities.”

The plaintiffs claim that Shein’s “confusing corporate structure” allows the company to “avoid liability” in the case of intellectual property infringement, adding that the brand’s “first line of defense” when facing a copyright or trademark cease and desist is “removing the product from its sites with blaming the misconduct on another [Shein entity] actor (implying such actor is independent).”

As a result, the artists have accused Shein of “multiple acts of racketeering and criminal copyright infringement” and are seeking past and future damages, as well as compensation for legal fees and injunctive relief to “prevent further racketeering activity”.

In a statement to The Independent, a spokesperson for Shein said: “SHEIN takes all claims of infringement seriously, and we take swift action when complaints are raised by valid IP rights holders. We will vigorously defend ourselves against this lawsuit and any claims that are without merit.”

This is not the first time Shein has faced accusations of infringement. In May, artist Maggie Stephenson settled with Shein for an undisclosed amount after she filed a $100 million lawsuit last year. That same month, Italian fashion designer Giuliano Calza claimed the retailer stole shoe designs from his streetwear label, GCDS.

The new lawsuit comes after a Shein-sponsored influencer trip made headlines for promoting Shein’s factory in Guangzhou, China. The influencers were invited to tour Shein’s “innovation factory”, as they posted videos showing a clean, brightly lit factory with automated bots assisting in processing and packaging orders. However, the influencer trip faced backlash as many pointed out the fast fashion company’s accusations of labour abuse and its negative impact on the environment.