#Influencers?

Social media influencer asking followers to like and subscribe

What do the Special Prosecutor and the New York State Attorney General have in common? If you answered fake social media accounts and social media bots inflating followers, likes, tweets and retweets, you would be correct.

At the end of January, 2019, Attorney General Letitia James announced she had reached a settlement with Devumi LLC, which she described as “the first in the country” to find that selling fake followers and likes on social media is illegal deception and using stolen identities from real people is illegal impersonation. The Attorney General’s investigation began under James’ predecessor in response to an article posted online by The New York Times on January 27, 2018, entitled “The Follower Factory”.  That article is the best source to understand the underlying facts.

Devumi operated a business through which individuals who wished to appear more popular and influential could purchase views on YouTube, plays on SoundCloud, endorsements on LinkedIn, as well as followers, likes and retweets on Twitter and other social media platforms. According to the Times, Devumi’s customers included the model Kathy Ireland, the former pro-football player Ray Lewis and even the Treasury Secretary’s wife. Engagement with the platforms was effected by using computer operated fake accounts, generally referred to as “bots”. In some instances, the social media personas of real people were “cloned” to create multiple accounts in multiple languages to create thousands of other accounts used to promote products or services, so-called “sock puppet” accounts. According to the Times, Devumi supplied customers with over 200 million followers, using 3.5 million accounts.

Reaction to the article was swift and resulted in Devumi ceasing operations when the publicity “caused a major decline in its sales”, according to the Attorney General. But Devumi is hardly the only entity or individual conducting similar questionable operations. A simple search for “Buy Followers” on Google will lead to links for many offering followers or likes for sale. The search is so common that Google has pre-programmed questions and answers related to the search as well as related searches targeted to specific social media platforms.

Fraud and deception related to influence on social media platforms are not limited to purchasing followers and likes. According to an article posed on-line by The Atlantic in December 2018, wanna-be professional “influencers” are also feigning sponsorship deals on-line to convince brands of their credibility as influencers—what the article aptly calls “faking it until you make it”.

While many athletes and performers have entered into lucrative endorsement deals with brands for many years, the influence they sell has been earned through a record of actual accomplishment in their professional fields. Roger Federer, for example, can endorse coffee machines and watches because he justly has earned fame based on long years of actual accomplishment playing professional tennis. The same cannot necessarily be said of professional “influencers” whose only claim to fame is an Instagram following that may or may not have been manufactured. So, when it comes to social media “influencers”, the watch word should be: let the buyer beware.

Credit:  Helene M. Freeman


NYC Fashion Week and the Created Today, Copied Tomorrow Syndrome

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Pose! Click! Flash! Those are just a few of the sights and sounds of Fashion Week, an exciting time here in New York City. I had the privilege of attending one of the week’s first events–PH5’s Presentation at Bortolami Gallery in Chelsea.

I was awed by the entire experience–stark white walls adorned with giant white balloons set against a row of willowy models in unique and colorful knits and clear plastic above-the-knee boots. As the models stood in mannequin-like pose on small white pedestals, cameras went off at lightning speed and reporters surrounded designer Mijia Zhang and owner Wei Lin. Others, many of them dressed to perfection, crowded into the gallery to see the looks–and look over each other. The energy was high and fast.

After some gawking and conversation over maple water, the onlookers drifted out and the room cleared just as quickly as it had filled up. It was then that I was struck how much the show reminded me of Christmas morning when the kids tear through numerous well-wrapped gifts in literally minutes. After all of the time-consuming preparations in browsing, choosing and wrapping gifts and placing them under the trimmed tree, the excitement is over in a matter of minutes. The same is true of a fashion show.

I thought of all of the hard work Wei, Mijia and their team put into making the excitement of the show. From choosing a brand, to designing the clothes, selecting eye-catching fabrics, obtaining quality manufacturers and selecting the “right” models, space and décor, the coordination is overwhelming.

As a lawyer, my mind, of course, then jumped to the “dark side.” The months of planning to over-in-minutes analogy made me think of how quickly PH5’s designs could be ripped off. We do not have copyright protection for clothing designs in the United States so copying is not only inevitable but also permitted. I have heard many a designer tell me about the frustration they experience when all of the time, effort and money they expend to create a line of clothes can be out the door in minutes when photos of fresh clothing are sent overseas and copied instantly. A few years ago, bills were introduced in Congress to give limited protection to clothing designs but they never made it anywhere. As a result, the copying continues, at least in the U.S., at the same frantic pace as Fashion Week. Some countries like France guard their famous designers by protecting clothing designs.

Some designers with novel fabrics may be luckier than others. For example, PH5 has what the Daily Beast calls “technically sophisticated knits” which can be protected by copyright. Original fabric designs are protected by copyright in the U.S., which does help alleviate the created today, knocked off tomorrow syndrome. Whether a design qualifies for protection is a question to raise with counsel—well enough before the fashion show starts—in order to help gain a measure of legal (and therefore business) advantage over makers of knock-offs.

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Credit: Monica P. McCabe