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Intellectual property controversies in China’s emerging influencer economy

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Author: Liu, Zijun
Previously, it can be said that mass media systems were dominated by one-way communication flows (Bennet & Manheim, 2006). This created a clear demarcation between media producers and media consumers whom were also the primary target for established media campaigns (Jhally, 2000). However in recent years, emerging media platforms have generated new opportunities for social groupings and cultural modes in the process of transforming the traditional communications landscape (Srnicek, 2015). This new dynamic has challenged previously established regulations as embodied in the dynamic between fashion intellectual property (IP) and the commercialization of the “social media influencer” figure, as a new breed of online entrepreneurs and digital consumers have emerged in the Internet economy. While this is evident in many areas of the world today these processes play themselves out in a unique way in China. In the Chinese context, according to data regarding sales of women’s apparel on Taobao during the Single’s Day Shopping Carnival in 2018, four of the top ten highest selling stores were not run by traditional companies but instead were run by social media influencers (ASKCI, 2017). The nature of this impact can be explained by looking at one such influencer, renowned online celebrity Cherie who has contracted 30 online celebrities in her company Chen Fan, and delivered sales exceeding 150 million yuan in just 5 minutes and 50 seconds (ASKCI, 2017). Within 24 hours she was able to bring in 350 million yuan (ASKCI, 2017). As the influencer economy continues to expand in China so have questions concerning the nature of this new economy. For example, some social media influencers have used the same graphics or the recipes of world-famous companies, such as CPB or Loreal, when making their own products which are then available for purchase in their respective online shops. These behaviors have generated significant controversy in the Chinese online markets, from increasingly savvy consumers and local regulators, and even received global attention, from international IP regulators and media. Based on my case study and online observations, there is a contradiction between the presence of IP infringements in China’s emerging influencer economy and the state’s enforcement of IP law. It can be argued that facing this contradiction is a crucial step for China to rethink its shifting position in the global capitalist system.
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