The complaint further asserts that despite receiving several letters, starting in July, demanding that sales of the clothes in question be halted, Kohl’s continues to sell these items. As is often the case when an independent artist feels his or her work has been infringed by a more powerful corporation, before litigation Chin initially took to social media, detailing her case and asking for a boycott. “My friends and fans have been amazing and supporting in bringing awareness to this rip-off,” Chin said, pointing to an online petition
that garnered some 3,200 signatures. In a Tumblr post
, she highlighted the immense disparity of resources between a major company like Kohl’s—which reports annual sales in excess of $19 billion—and herself, writing that she believed a lawsuit would be “ridiculously expensive for a solo artist like me.” That Chin did end up suing is indicative that there are ways for artists to pursue litigation, even if it seems like they lack the necessary means at the outset.
Along with copyright infringement, Chin is also accusing the company of unfair competition. Such laws are meant to protect both companies and consumers from deceptive business practices. In laying out her case, the complaint argues that Kohl’s removed both Chin’s name and the copyright information clearly included with Doggie Language. This improperly associated Chin’s work with the fashion retailer in a way that would mislead buyers to “mistakenly believe that Ms. Chin is somehow affiliated with or associated with these goods when in fact she is not.”
The lawsuit is seeking an injunction halting sales, along with punitive damages and actual damages of $25,000 per infringement violation. Because Chin submitted her drawings to the government for copyright protection prior to the alleged infringement, Kohl’s will be forced to pay her attorney fees should she win. That same filing also means that Chin can elect to receive statutory damages, which can reach as high as $150,000 per infringement. Statutory damages allow a plaintiff to receive a set amount of money, rather than just damages calculated by the degree of actual economic harm, a figure that can be much lower. Still, it remains to be seen if this case actually makes it into a courtroom. Most infringement lawsuits are settled prior to any actual verdict. That Chin filed her work with the U.S. copyright office provides her additional leverage should she look to settle.
Instances of independent artists charging major fashion companies with copyright infringement have received growing attention recently. Such allegations have ensnared numerous prominent brands, from Zara to Topshop. Neither is this the first instance in which Kohl’s has been charged with copyright infringement by an independent illustrator. In 2010, an artist named Heidi Panelli hit the company with a lawsuit arguing that it used her design of a stick-figure playing the guitar on a t-shirt it sold. The outcome of that case is unknown. In a coincidence, Chin brought her infringement case against Kohl’s just a few days days before the store announced a 1.5 million dollar donation to the Milwaukee Art Museum.
As Chin’s claim moves through court, a solution to the broader problem remains elusive. In her same Tumblr post from last month, Chin asked that consumers be vigilant and refrain from purchasing clothing from brands accused by artists of infringement. Though lawyers can provide help, the seeming increase in these types of cases is cause for concern. Copyright infringement lawsuits can be emotionally draining, and it is impossible to know how many artists choose not to speak up. And the theft of artists’ work denies them not only their livelihoods, but the creative recognition that is so important to those who pursue art as a profession.
Indeed, when asked what she hopes to receive from her lawsuit, Chin offered only one word: “Justice.”