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Fast-fashion giant Shein is facing legal action from three independent Artists who claim that the company has been using a secretive algorithm to identify trending art and then reproducing the designs on its merchandise. The Artists, Krista Perry, Larissa Martinez, and Jay Baron, have filed a lawsuit in a California federal court, alleging that Shein's artificial intelligence not only identifies and mimics their artwork but also facilitates the creation of nearly identical copies in sweatshops. The lawsuit raises concerns about the impact of artificial intelligence on intellectual property rights and the challenges faced in holding such tech-savvy corporations accountable.

Larissa Martinez design (Left); Shein design (Right): Source NPR

In the lawsuit, the artists accuse Shein of making billions by utilizing a mysterious algorithm that can accurately predict nascent fashion trends. This algorithm, coupled with an efficient corporate structure, allegedly enables Shein to rapidly churn out fast-fashion pieces based on identified trends. Shein's AI-powered technology supposedly plays a significant role in its ability to stay ahead in the fast-paced fashion industry, continuously offering a vast array of cutting-edge products.

The lawsuit points to Chris Xu, the enigmatic billionaire Founder of Shein, as the driving force behind the company's reliance on high technology rather than high design. It suggests that Xu's algorithm is responsible for the company's remarkable agility in identifying and replicating art and fashion trends. Moreover, Shein's complex corporate structure, described as a "byzantine shell game," has been criticized for making it challenging for artists to identify the proper party to sue in cases of alleged copyright infringement and intellectual property theft.

No one knows exactly how the algorithm works, and the company’s corporate website simply boasts that it employs “cutting-edge technologies and processes in design and sourcing” but does not explain the technology it uses. The lawsuit notes this secretive technology but alleges “it’s possible to infer certain facts about Shein’s algorithm by looking at its results". With Shein producing nearly 2000 new designs daily, its algorithm is clearly focused on quantity, and as such it seems to rely on taking successful designs elsewhere to continually grow. At this scale it is clear that there is likely little, if any, human involvement in the design process, and as a result plagiarism is inevitable.

Krista Perry Print (Left); Shein Print (Right): Source: Gizmodo

Drawing parallels to TikTok's data collection practices, the Artists argue that Shein's business model also relies heavily on gathering vast amounts of customer data and reverse-engineering it to shape fashion trends. They go on to claim that Shein poses a more significant societal threat than TikTok due to issues beyond data security and privacy. These concerns include environmental damage, sweatshop labor conditions, tax avoidance, child safety, and, most notably, large-scale and systematic intellectual property theft from both prominent and emerging U.S. designers.

The Artists acknowledge the formidable legal protections enjoyed by Shein and its elusive corporate structure, making it challenging to hold the company accountable for alleged copyright infringement and IP theft. To combat this, the plaintiffs are invoking the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), aiming to target all of Shein's corporate parties and subsidiaries in a single legal action.

Jay Baron Patch (Left); Shein patch (Right): Source: NPR

The lawsuit against Shein is just the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the company. In the past, big-name designers such as Levi Strauss, Dr. Martens, and Ralph Lauren have also targeted Shein in lawsuits alleging design theft. Additionally, Shein's sponsored influencer trip faced backlash for propagating a positive image while the company's labor practices remained under scrutiny.

The legal battle between Shein and the three artists brings attention to the intricate relationship between technology, fashion, and intellectual property rights. As AI continues to advance, it poses new challenges for artists and designers seeking to protect their creations from unauthorized reproduction and imitation. The outcome of this landmark case could significantly impact the global art and design communities and potentially lead to changes in how companies use AI to drive trends in the fast-fashion industry.

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