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Unique or Uniqlo: What you should know about Shein’s “secret” AI algorithm

Written by Open Source Published on   3 mins read

Shein’s use of artificial intelligence has come under scrutiny once again after Uniqlo filed a lawsuit, accusing Shein of imitating its popular bag design.

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This week’s story

Japanese fashion retailer Uniqlo is suing its Chinese counterpart, Shein, alleging the imitation of its popular bag design.

While the world was immersed in Christmas and year-end festivities, Uniqlo initiated legal action on December 28 against Shein for selling products that mimic its “Round Mini Shoulder Bag.” Crafted from nylon, featuring a half-moon shape, and available in various colors, this bag gained popularity and became a bestseller shortly after its introduction by Uniqlo in December 2020.

Uniqlo asserts that Shein has been marketing a product strikingly similar to its design, often priced at less than half the cost of Uniqlo’s original version, depending on promotions. The Japanese brand deems this behavior as anti-competitive and seeks compensation from Shein, urging them to cease the sale of the imitated product.

Why the buzz?

This isn’t the first time Shein has faced accusations of copycatting. In July of last year, several independent designers filed a lawsuit in California against Shein, alleging copyright infringement. They claimed that the company had incorporated exact copies of their designs into products it was selling. The year before, an illustrator named Magdalena Mollman also sued Shein for unilaterally reproducing her works. Shein settled with the illustrator last year.

Shein has been entangled in numerous lawsuits concerning alleged copyright infringement, with a consistent factor being an algorithm that appears to be the “engine” behind the company’s apparent plagiarism. In the California lawsuit, the plaintiffs introduced their case, claiming that Shein’s AI was “smart enough to misappropriate the pieces with the greatest commercial potential.”

This claim is seemingly corroborated by IMD in February 2022, when it stated that Shein, being one of Google’s largest China-based clients, has access to its “Trend Finder” product, enabling real-time granular tracking of search terms related to apparel, such as colors and fabrics, across various countries. Utilizing this tool alongside AI and data analytics, Shein accurately predicted the popularity of lace in the US and 100% cotton in India during the summer of 2018.

The big picture

What’s intriguing about Shein’s alleged copycatting is its common denominator with recent claims of generative AI tools infringing copyright for content creation and other use cases. Shein’s algorithm, capable of identifying and imitating designs with commercial potential, not only underscores how technology is changing the fashion industry, but poses questions about IP and the protection of creative works.

How these questions will be answered may have much broader implications. For one, Shein’s purported use of IP it doesn’t own, very much reflects the quandary surrounding the ownership and legality of data employed in training AI models. This predicament has already started spilling over into other spaces, as evidenced by the recent case filed by The New York Times against Microsoft and OpenAI.

Determining a solution won’t be straightforward. While a laissez-faire approach might expedite AI development and commercialization, such progress could come at a hefty cost for the creators of works appropriated in the process.

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