Fast-fashion retailer Shein has, once again, been named as a defendant in a lawsuit for intellectual property theft. Florida-based artist Magdalena Mollman, professionally known as Maggie Stephenson, is suing Shein for more than $100 million in damages for selling unauthorized reproductions of her acclaimed “One is good, more is better” artwork on Shein’s site under the title “Abstract Pattern Wall Painting Without Frame”.
Mollman’s Claim for Copyright Infringement
With around 110,000 followers on Instagram alone, Mollman has a large following and holds a significant influence on the modern art world with her abstract art prints. Having produced work for Urban Outfitters, Sephora, and Net-a-Porter, among others, Mollman is also familiar with working with large retailers.
Fortunately, and perhaps due to her fame and experience in the industry, Mollman had the foresight to take all necessary steps to protect her “One is good, more is better” artwork from infringement, including registration of the artwork with the U.S. Copyright Office and including Copyright Management Information (CMI) on the work.
Broadly defined, CMI includes any information which identifies the artwork, the artist or owner of the work, and the terms and conditions for use of the work, such as the artist’s name, the name of the artwork, the work’s date of creation, and the copyright registration number.
While many artists register their works with the U.S. Copyright Office, few have the prudence to include CMI on their artwork. This second step, which is often overlooked, is crucially important to protecting one’s copyrights as it provides copyright notice to third parties. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) also prohibits anyone from knowingly removing or providing false CMI in order to prevent misinformation about the origin of the original work.
“One is good, more is better” is one of Mollman’s most popular and best-selling works, and it will be difficult for Shein to argue that it did not have knowledge of the copyrighted work when it sold unauthorized reproductions of the painting, especially as Shein took the affirmative step of removing the original CMI information from the reproductions and replacing the information with Shein’s own logo.
Shein’s History of Disregard for Intellectual Property Rights
If you see a clothing trend on TikTok or Instagram, chances are that Shein already has a similar piece in stock that can be delivered to your door with just a few clicks of a mouse. On average, Shein produces around 6,000 new styles each day, many of which are suspected to be appropriated from other businesses and designers.
In fact, Mollman’s suit against Shein is not the first time that Shein has been accused of blatantly stealing or copying designs from others, and it likely won’t be the last. While Shein typically targets smaller businesses and creators who may lack the resources to fight back against such exploitation, even well-known apparel powerhouses such as Levi Strauss, Ralph Lauren, Stussy, and Dr. Martens have become victim to Shein’s tactics. Each of these companies has filed trademark infringement suits against Shein in recent years for selling infringing and/or counterfeit products.
In Dr. Marten’s suit against Shein (AirWair International Ltd. v. Zoetop Business Co., Limited, Case No. 5:20-cv-07696), Dr. Marten’s claims Shein sold boots under the name “Martin boot” that had a remarkable resemblance to Dr. Marten’s Leather Lace Up Boots. The lawsuit, filed in the Northern District of California, alleges that Shein chose the “Martin” name and used copyrighted images of Dr. Marten’s boots in the product listing in an effort to “mislead and entice customers to purchase the counterfeits at a fraction of the cost of the real Dr. Marten’s products”.
Shein sold these boots for around $20.00 a pair, while the authentic boots sold by Dr. Marten’s generally sell for around $150.00 a pair. Some of these knock-off “Martin” boots sold by Shein even feature the iconic yellow stitching along the welt of the boot customers have come to associate with Dr. Marten’s products.
Despite the numerous trademark and copyright infringement suits filed against Shein each year, the company continues to grow exponentially and has dominated the burgeoning fast fashion industry. Many attribute this growth to Shein’s willingness to exploit the creative work of others and its deliberate disregard of copyright and other intellectual property rights. However, with an estimated 7.5 million users and $10 billion estimated annual revenue, it is unlikely that Shein will change its business model in the foreseeable future.
How You Can Protect Yourself from Infringement
As an up-and-coming artist, fashion designer, or small business, it should be a priority for you to ensure that your trademarks and copyrights are fully protected against any potential infringement. While trademark and copyright rights accrue upon use or creation, registration of your trademarks and copyrights is required before you can file a federal infringement suit to enforce those rights.