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Shein Faces $100 Million Lawsuit

A freelance artist who claims Shein copied her artwork wants the fast-fashion e-tailer to pay out more than $100 million.

The copyright infringement complaint, filed by the Jacksonville, Fla. artist Maggie Stephenson Wednesday, joins similar lawsuits from fashion brands like Stussy and Dr. Martens—both of which have accused the fast-growing Chinese phenom of selling “copies” of their trademarked designs. Denim titan Levi Strauss filed its own lawsuit in August 2018, but settled in December that year.

A freelance illustrator for magazines, advertising and other publishers, Stephenson has counted Sephora, Urban Outfitters, Net-a-Porter Magazine and Mr Porter among her clients. She currently has roughly 111,000 followers on Instagram.

Her complaint, which named Zoetop Business Co., Ltd., the Hong Kong-based company doing business as Shein, and Shein Distribution Corp., a Delaware corporation with its principal place of business in California, as defendants, included four claims: copyright infringement, vicarious and/or contributory copyright infringement, removal of copyright management information and false copyright management information.

The complaint centers on an artwork entitled “One is good, more is better.” Though Stephenson registered the piece with the United States Copyright Office in 2021, it and its derivative works have been displayed and “widely disseminated” since April 2019, the complaint said. Referred to in the lawsuit as “one of Plaintiff’s most popular, best-selling original creative works,” the piece is sold at price points ranging from $19 up to $300, including through third parties like Urban Outfitters. Stephenson affixed multiple forms of copyright management information (CMI), including her name and signature, date of creation, brand name, logo and social media handle, on all authorized prints, copies, derivative works and related packaging.

Maggie Stephenson's lawsuit included a screenshot of Shein's virtual store that appears to show the e-tailer selling Maggie Stephenson's artwork
Maggie Stephenson’s lawsuit included a screenshot of Shein’s virtual store that appears to show the e-tailer selling Maggie Stephenson’s artwork. Maggie Stephenson

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Shein began selling “copies” of this artwork under the description “Abstract Pattern Wall Painting Without Frame” “within the past three years,” the complaint said. A screenshot of the Shein product page appears to show a wall hanging identical to “One is good, more is better.” The page includes two size options, 30×40 and 39×60, with prices starting at $4. The 30-by-40-inch reproduction sold by Urban Outfitters costs $89.

“Defendants never attempted to contact Plaintiff to inquire about properly licensing her work,” the complaint added. “Plaintiff is informed and believes and based thereon alleges that Defendants simply copied the Original Art Work, created the Infringing Work and sold copies thereof for a fraction of their value without regard for Plaintiff’s creative rights and financial interests.”

The lawsuit also alleged that Shein “intentionally” removed Stephenson’s CMI “with the intent to induce, enable, facilitate, or conceal their infringement.” The image used on the Shein product page appears to be missing a signature that is otherwise included on Stephenson’s own and licensed reproductions. The complaint further argued that by affixing the Shein name and logo to the allegedly infringing work’s packaging, the e-tailer had added “false” copyright management information. “In doing so, Defendants not only falsely identify SHEIN as the author and copyright owner of the original elements of the Infringing Work, but Defendants also falsely imply that they are the author and copyright owner of the Original Art Work,” it added.

Though plenty of major brands have sued Shein for infringement, Stephenson’s complaint makes the case that the fast-fashion behemoth’s “notorious” business practices are “predicated upon willfully violating the rights and interests of independent artists and designers who create original works entitled to protection under federal copyright law.”

In a section entitled “Defendants’ Modus Operandi,” the complaint told the stories of four different artists who saw their work reproduced on goods sold on Shein. In three of these instances, Stephenson’s counsel claimed, the e-tailer blamed a third-party vendor. In two cases, Shein allegedly sold unlicensed copies of the artist’s design with her name still visible on the artwork.

According to Stephenson’s complaint, Shein and Shein Distribution Corp. have been sued for infringement and/or unfair competition in more than 30 separate actions in the Central District of California.