Fast-Fashion Continues to Harm Small Businesses and Artists

Serena Nath is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Known for its cheap and trendy clothes, Chinese fast-fashion retailer Shein has seen great success over the past several years. Its low prices are typically attributed to its frequent and large-scale productions, but another reason for such low pricess may be intellectual property theft. Recently, Shein is once again being sued for copyright infringement. Artist Magdalena Mollman, also known professionally as Maggie Stephenson, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, on June 15 suing Shein for over $100 million in damages for unauthorized reproductions of her artwork “One is good, more is better.”

Mollman versus Shein

In 2019, Mollman registered this artwork with the U.S. Copyright Office and included Copyright Management Information (CMI) on her artwork. To obtain intellectual property protection, registering with the U.S. Copyright Office is common, as it allows for one to bring a lawsuit for infringement of a U.S. work, while also allowing for one to have their copyright on the public record and a certificate of registration. However, by also including CMI on her work, Mollman acquired further IP protection for her artwork, as CMI is information about a copyrighted work, such as the terms and conditions for use of the work, the owner’s name, and the name of the work.

With copyright protections in place for Mollman’s art, she was able to control who produced replicates and sold her work. This including allowing several retailers, such as Sephora, Urban Outfitters, and Elle Magazine to sell prints of art at differing prices, with the lowest price being $19. However, Mollman had not authorized Shein to sell prints of her artwork. Despite the lack of authorization, from 2019 to 2021, Shein sold these unauthorized prints for as low as $4 per print, and with intentional removal of Mollman’s CMI, including her name and signature. Additionally, Shein reportedly added false CMI by featuring their own brand and logo in their reproduction of Mollman’s artwork which implied that Shein is the rightful author and copyright owner. As a result, Mollman is now suing Shein for copyright infringement, vicarious and/or contributory copyright infringement, removal of copyright management information, and false copyright management information.

Intellectual Property Theft is Common for Shein

This lawsuit is simply the latest that Shein has faced since rising to popularity. Shein has a long history of being sued for IP infringement — a source even claimed that Shein’s parent company, Zoetop Business Co., has been named a defendant in at least 50 federal lawsuits in the U.S. for IP infringement. Shein historically targeted smaller businesses to steal their designs, and in doing so, was able to keep product prices low by spending very little on designing their products. Additionally, these smaller businesses would be less likely to bring an action due to a lack of financial resources. For example, when Tiina Menzel, a German-based artist, discovered that Shein had been selling products with her art, she was unable to bring a lawsuit due to costs.

Interestingly, Shein has also been known to steal IP from larger businesses too, such as Dr. Marten, Levi Strauss, and Ralph Lauren. In one case, streetwear brand Stussy Inc. sued Shein for copyright infringement, claiming that Shein was selling products using Stussy’s logo without authorization.

Fast-Fashion Drives Intellectual Property Theft

Shein’s latest lawsuit highlights the ongoing issue of IP theft in the fashion industry. IP from smaller companies/artists is frequently exploited by large fast-fashion companies, allowing them to mass-produce trendy products at a low cost, without consequence, for smaller artists typically lack the resources to legally battle large fast-fashion companies.  T . There must, then, be alternative legal solutions to protect small businesses from intellectual property theft, such as a sort of government-funded civil legal system. Without an adequate solution, Shein and other fast-fashion companies can continue to exploit small businesses with few consequences.

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