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Fast fashion is a term used to describe a highly profitable business model based on replicating catwalk trends and high-fashion designs, and mass-producing them at low cost. The term fast fashion is also used to generically describe the products of the fast fashion business model. The fast fashion business model was made possible during the late 20th century as manufacturing of cloth became cheaper and easier, through new materials like polyester and nylon, efficient supply chains and quick response manufacturing methods, and inexpensive labour in sweatshop production and low-labour protection bulk clothing manufacturing industries in South, South East, and East Asia. Companies like H&M and Zara, built business models based on inexpensive clothing from the efficient production lines, to create more seasonal and trendy designs that are aggressively marketed to fashion-conscious consumers. Fast fashion applies an extreme version of planned obsolescence to clothing. Because these designs are changing so quickly and are so cheap, consumers buy more clothing than they would previously, so expectations for those clothes to last decrease.
This decrease in quality, increase in purchasing, and speed of replacement creates a large amount of clothing waste—much clothing produced under the fast fashion model is lower quality thus harder to reuse or recycle. Moreover, the rapid and cheap production processes of fast fashion create increased pollution and other environmental and social impacts—i.e. pesticide use in industrial cotton growth, fossil fuel extraction for synthetic materials or slave labour in sweatshops. In response to these impacts, environmentally or socially responsible consumers and designers have begun demanding zero-waste fashion or sustainable fashion. This increasing trend is creating pressure on fast fashion companies globally to change manufacturing and sales practices.
Before the 1800s, fashion was an extensive and almost primitive process where one had to source materials like wool or leather, prepare and weave them into garments. However, the Industrial Revolution amplified the world of fashion by introducing new technology – like the sewing machine, textile machines, ready-made clothing factories and mass production of clothes. All of this resulted in clothes becoming cheaper, easier and quicker to make. Meanwhile, localized dressmaking businesses started to emerge to cater to the middle classes, and they employed workroom employees along with garment workers, who worked from home for meager wages. These types of operations would, later on, lead to the growth of the ‘sweatshops’ that would provide the basis of modern clothing production. During World War II, the trend of more functional styles and fabric restrictions led to the standardized production of clothes. Once the middle-class consumers got accustomed to it, they became more receptive to the idea of mass-produced clothing.
The fashion industry produced and ran clothes for four seasons a year up until the mid-twentieth century, and the designers would work many months in advance to predict what the customers would want. It was in the 1960s and 1970s that this method changed drastically when the young generation started to create new trends and used cheaply-made clothing as a form of personal expression. Although most fashion brands tried to find ways of keeping up with the increasing demand for affordable clothes, there was still a clear distinction between the high-end and High Street fashion. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, fast fashion became a booming industry in America with people enthusiastically partaking in consumerism. Fast fashion retailers such as Zara, H&M, Topshop and Primark took over high street fashion. Initially starting as small stores located in Europe, they were able to infiltrate and gain prominence in the American market by examining and replicating the looks and design elements from runway shows and top fashion houses and quickly reproducing and selling them at a fraction of a cost.
When it comes to question of who was the pioneer of the "fast fashion" phenomenon, it is difficult to pinpoint one particular brand or company. Nevertheless, there is some evidence that suggest the popular fashion brands that helped start the phenomenon. Amancio Ortega, founder of Zara, founded his clothing company in 1963 in Galicia and it featured products that were affordable replications of popular higher-end clothing fashions in addition to producing its own unique designs. Later on in 1975 Ortega opened the first retail outlet in Europe in order to sell his collections in the short run and also to integrate production and distribution in the long run. He eventually was able to move to New York in the early 1990s where the New York Times first coined the term “fast fashion” to describe the mission of his store which said that “it would only take 15 days for a garment to go from a designer's brain to being sold on the racks”. In the article “Fast Fashion Lessons” Donald Sull and Stefano Turconi studies how Zara pioneered an approach to navigate the volatile world of the fast fashion industry. According to Sull and Turconi one of the reasons for Zara's success was that it built a supply chain and production network where they maintained complicated and capital-intensive operations (like computer-guided fabric cutting) in-house, while it outsourced labour-intensive operations (like garment sewing) to a network of local subcontractors and seamstress operatives based in Galicia. Thus with shorter lead times the company was able to respond very quickly when the sale of their products exceeded their expectations and also cut off production for items that didn't have very high demands. Unlike many fashion companies, Zara hardly invests in television or press promotional campaigns and instead relies on store windows to convey the brand image, spread of word-of-mouth and locating their shops strategically in areas with high consumer traffic.
Similar to Zara, the origin story of H&M also has common traits and technically it has also been the longest running retailer. In 1946 Erling Persson, a Swedish entrepreneur, goes on a trip to the USA where he was greatly intrigued and impressed by the concept of efficient and high-volume production stores that he witnessed in New York. The following year in 1947 Persson establishes a women's wear store called Hennes (which is Swedish for “Hers”) & Mauritz (also commonly known as H&M) in Västerås, Sweden and then between the years of 1960 and 1979 the company rapidly expands not only in terms of location, with 42 stores across Europe, but also in terms of its clothing to include the whole family. The initial foundation for its global expansion is laid when in the 1980s H&M decides to acquire Rowells, a Swedish mail order company, and use it to shift the sale of their fashion products directly into the customer's homes. After that in the 1990s H&M decides to invest and capitalize on the transition to large city billboard advertising for their products by using famous celebrities and supermodels wearing their clothes. Finally H&M opens its first flagship store on Fifth Avenue in New York in 2000, which marked the commencement of its international expansion outside of Europe. Zaw Thiha Tun examines the secret of H&M's success as a company and mentions that the distinct business model of H&M is unlike Zara since they don't manufacture any of their products in-house. Rather it outsources its production to more than 900 independent suppliers that are mainly located in Europe and Asia and overseen by 30 strategically located oversight offices. At the same time it primarily depends on its state-of-the-art IT infrastructure and network to connect between the central national office and the production offices. This fact proves to be very crucial to their operations since they don't own factories or secure the fabrics in advance, and thus they have been able to reduce their lead times through continuous developments in the buying process.
Fast fashion brands produce pieces to get the newest style on the market as soon as possible. They emphasize optimizing certain aspects of the supply chain for the trends to be designed and manufactured quickly and inexpensively and allow the mainstream consumer to buy current clothing styles at a lower price. This philosophy of quick manufacturing at an affordable price is used in large retailers such as H&M, Zara, C&A, Peacocks, Primark, ASOS, Forever 21, and Uniqlo.
It particularly came to the fore during the vogue for "boho chic" in the mid-2000s. According to the UK Environmental Audit Committee's report "Fixing Fashion," fast fashion "involves increased numbers of new fashion collections every year, quick turnarounds and often lower prices. Reacting rapidly to offer new products to meet consumer demand is crucial to this business model.”
Fast fashion has developed from a product-driven concept based on a manufacturing model referred to as "quick response" developed in the U.S. in the 1980s and moved to a market-based model of "fast fashion" in the late 1990s and first part of the 21st century. The Zara brand name has become almost synonymous with the term, but other retailers worked with the concept before the label was applied, such as Benetton. Fast fashion has also become associated with disposable fashion because it has delivered designer product to a mass market at relatively low prices.
Slow fashion counter
The slow fashion or conscious fashion movement has risen in opposition to fast fashion, naming responsibility for pollution (both in the production of clothes and in the decay of synthetic fabrics), poor workmanship, and emphasizing very brief trends over classic style. Elizabeth L. Cline's 2012 book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion was one of the first investigations into the human and environmental toll of fast fashion. Fast fashion has also come under criticism for contributing to poor working conditions in developing countries. The 2013 Dhaka garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, the deadliest garment-related accident in world history, brought more attention to the safety impact of the fast fashion industry.
In the rise of slow fashion, emphasis has been given to quality, considerate clothing. In recent Spring/Summer Fashion Show 2020, high end designers are leading the movement of slow fashion by creating pieces that develop environmental friendly practices in the industry. Stella McCartney is one luxury designer who focuses on sustainable and ethical practices, and has done so since the nineties. British Vogue explains that the process of designing and creating clothing in slow fashion involves consciousness of materials, consumers demand, and the climate impact.
In her recent article titled “Doing Good and Looking Good: Women in ‘Fast Fashion’ Activism”, Rimi Khan criticizes the slow fashion movement, particularly the work of high-profile designers and slow fashion advocates Stella McCartney and Vivienne Westwood, as well as other well known industry professionals such as Livia Firth, for creating slow fashion products which cater to a mostly western, wealthy, and female demographic. Khan points out that because most slow fashion products are significantly more expensive than fast fashion items, consumers are required to have a certain amount of disposable income in order to participate in the movement. Khan argues that by proposing a solution to fast-fashion that is largely inaccessible to many consumers, they are positioning wealthier women as “agents of change” in the movement against fast fashion, whereas the shopping habits of lower income women and people of other genders are often considered “problematic”. Andrea Chang provides a similar critique of the slow fashion movement in her article “The Impact of Fast Fashion on Women”. Chang argues that the slow fashion and ethical fashion movements place too much responsibility on the consumers of fast fashion clothing, most of whom are women, to influence the industry through their consumption. Chang suggests that because most consumers are limited in their ability to choose where and how they purchase clothing, largely due to financial factors, anti-fast fashion activists should target lawmakers, manufacturers, and investors with a stake in the fast fashion industry rather than create an alternative industry that is only accessible to some.
The primary objective of fast fashion is to quickly produce a product in a cost-efficient manner to respond to fast-changing consumer tastes in as near real time as possible. This efficiency is achieved through the retailers’ understanding of the target market's wants, which is a high fashion-looking garment at a price at the lower end of the clothing sector. Primarily, the concept of category management has been used to align the retail buyer and the manufacturer in a more collaborative relationship.
Quick response method
Quick Response (QR) was developed to improve manufacturing processes in the textile industry with the aim of removing time from the production system. The U.S. Apparel Manufacturing Association initiated the project in the early 1980s to address a competitive threat to its own textile manufactures from imported textiles in low labour cost countries. During the project lead times in the manufacturing process were halved; the U.S. industry became more competitive for a time, and imports were lowered as a result. The QR initiative was viewed by many as a protection mechanism for the American textile industry with the aim of improving manufacturing efficiencies.
The concept of quick response (QR) is now used to support "fast fashion," creating new, fresh products while also drawing consumers back to the retail experience for consecutive visits. Quick response also makes it possible for new technologies to increase production and efficiency, typified by the introduction of the complementary concept of Fast Fit. The Spanish mega chain Zara, owned by Inditex, has become the global model for how to decrease the time between design and production. This production short cut enables Zara to manufacture over 30,000 units of product every year to nearly 1,600 stores in 58 countries. New items are delivered twice a week to the stores, reducing the time between initial sale and replenishment. As a result, the shortened time period improves consumer's garment choices and product availability while significantly increasing the number of per customer visits per annum. In the case of Renner, a Brazilian chain, a new mini-collection is released every two months.
Marketing is the key driver of fast fashion. Marketing creates the desire for consumption of new designs as close as possible to the point of creation. Marketing closes the gap between creation and consumption by promoting this as something fast, low priced, and disposable. The continuous release of new products essentially makes the garments a highly cost effective marketing tool that drives consumer visits, increases brand awareness, and results in higher rates of consumer purchases. Fast fashion companies have also enjoyed higher profit margins in that their markdown percentage is only 15% compared to competitors’ 30% plus. The fast fashion business model is based on reducing the time cycles from production to consumption such that consumers engage in more cycles in any time period. For example, the traditional fashion seasons followed the annual cycle of summer, autumn, winter and spring, but in fast fashion cycles have compressed into shorter periods of 4–6 weeks and in some cases less than this. Marketers have thus created more buying seasons in the same time-space.
Two approaches are currently being used by companies as market strategies; the difference is the amount of financial capital spent on advertisements. While some companies invest in advertising, fast fashion mega firm Primark operates with no advertising. Primark instead invests in store layout, shop-fit and visual merchandising to create an instant hook. The instant hook creates an enjoyable shopping experience, resulting in the continuous return of customers. Research shows that 75 percent of consumers' decisions are made in front of the fixture within three seconds. The alternative spending of Primark also "allows the retailer to pass the benefits of a cost saving back to the consumer and maintain the company's price structure of producing garments at a lower cost".
The consumer in the fast fashion market thrives on constant change and the frequent availability of new products. Fast fashion is considered to be a "supermarket" segment within the larger sense of the fashion market. This term refers to fast fashion's nature to "race to make apparel an even smarter and quicker cash generator". Three crucial differentiating model factors exist within fast fashion consumption: market timing, cost, and the buying cycle. Timing's objective is to create the shortest production time possible. The quick turnover has increased the demand for the number of seasons presented in the stores. This demand also increases shipping and restocking time periods. Cost is still the consumer's primary buying decision. Costs are largely reduced by taking advantage of lower prices in markets in developing countries. In 2004 developing countries accounted for nearly seventy five percent of all clothing exports and the removal of several import quotas has allowed companies to take advantage of the even lower cost of resources. The buying cycle is the final factor that affects the consumer. Traditionally, fashion buying cycles are based around long term forecasts that occur one year to six months before the season.
Supply chain, vendor relationships and internal relationships
Supply chains are central to the creation of fast fashion. Supply chain systems are designed to add value and reduce cost in the process of moving goods from design concept to retail stores and finally through to consumption. Efficient supply chains are critical to delivering the retail customer promise of fast fashion. The selection of a merchandising vendor is a key part in the process. Inefficiency primarily occurs when suppliers can't respond quickly enough, and clothing ends up bottlenecked and in back stock. Two kinds of supply chains exist, agile and lean. In an agile supply chain the principal characteristics include the sharing of information and technology. The collaboration results in the reduction in the amount of stock in the megastores. A lean supply chain is characterized as the correct appropriation of the commodity for the product.
The companies in the fast fashion market also utilize a range of relationships with the suppliers. The product is first classified as "core" or "fashion".
Productive internal relationships within the fast fashion companies are as important as the company's relationships with external suppliers, especially when it comes to the company's buyers. Traditionally with a "supermarket" market the buying is divided into multi-functional departments. The buying team uses the bottom-up approach when trend information is involved, meaning the information is only shared with the company's fifteen top suppliers. On the other hand, information about future aims, and strategies of production are shared downward within the buyer hierarchy so the team can consider lower cost production options.
Sustainable labor costing and efficiency dilemma in fast fashion
Published by University of Manchester, the Working Papers of "Capturing the Gains, global summit" brings together an international network of experts from North and South. The Working Paper 14 focuses on a specific feature of buying behaviour in the UK fashion retail industry: the negotiation of a manufacturing price (cut-make-trim, CMT, cost) with suppliers that does not separately itemize labour cost. This practice, tacitly supported by both buyers and suppliers, is examined against the backdrop of ongoing wage defaulting and import price deflation in the global apparel industry. For obvious reasons, the make-up of standard time using Predetermined Time standards (PTS), Predetermined motion time system (PMTS); is highly technical and ‘synthetic’. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), as of 1992 there were some 200 different PTS systems, offered by consultancies for adoption by manufacturing companies.
According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, the fast fashion system provides opportunities for economic growth but the entire fashion industry hinders sustainability efforts by contributing to 20% of wastewater. In addition, fast fashion is responsible for nearly 10 percent of global gas emissions. Providing insight, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation released study results on fashion and suggests a new circular system. A singular t-shirt requires over 2,000 liters of water to make. Clothing is not utilized to its full potential, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation explains that linear systems are contributing to unsustainable behavior and the future of fashion may need to transition towards a circular system of production and consumer behavior.
Journalist Elizabeth L. Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion and one of the earliest critics of fast fashion, notes in her article Where Does Discarded Clothing Go? that Americans are purchasing five times the amount of clothing than they did in 1980. Due to this rise in consumption, developed countries are producing more and more garments each season. The United States imports more than 1 billion garments annually from China alone. United Kingdom textile consumption surged by 37% from 2001 to 2005. The Global Fashion Business Journal reported that in 2018, the global fiber production has reached the highest all-time, 107 million metric tons.
The average American household produces 70 pounds (32 kg) of textile waste every year. The residents of New York City discard around 193,000 tons of clothing and textiles, which equates to 6% of all the city's garbage. In comparison, the European Union generates a total of 5.8 million tons of textiles each year. As a whole, the textile industry occupies roughly 5% of all landfill space. The clothing that is discarded into landfills is often made from non-biodegradable synthetic materials.
Greenhouse gases and various pesticides and dyes are released into the environment by fashion-related operations. The United Nations estimated that the business of what we wear, including its long supply chains, is responsible for 10 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions heating our planet. The growing demand for quick fashion continuously adds effluent release from the textile factories, containing both dyes and caustic solutions. In comparison, greenhouse gas emissions from textile production companies is more than international flights and maritime shipping combined annually. The materials used not only affect the environment in textile product, but also the workers and the people who wear the clothes. The hazardous substances affect all aspects of life and release into the environments around them. Optoro estimates that 5 billion pounds of waste is generated through returns each year, contributing 15 million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Fast fashion production has doubled since 2000, with brands such as Zara producing 24 collections a year and H&M producing about 12 to 16 collections a year.
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Due to the amount of pollution and waste caused by the fashion industry, for-profit groups, like Viletex, and retailers, such as H&M, are working to decrease the industry's environmental footprint and adopt sustainable technologies. Both companies have created programs that encourage recycling from the general public. These programs provide consumers with bins that allow them to dispose of their unwanted garments that will ultimately be transformed into insulation and carpet padding, as well as being used to produce other garments.
Advances in technologies have offered new methods of using dyes, producing fibers, and reducing the use of natural resources. To decrease the consumption of traditional textiles, Anke Domaske has produced "QMilch," an eco-milk fiber; Virus has produced high-tech sportswear from recycled coffee beans; and Suzanne Lee has created vegetable leather from fermented tea. Many companies have also created various ways to reduce the amount of dyes emitted into the world's waterways as well as the level of water consumption. For example, AirDye saves between 7 and 75 gallons of water per pound of textiles produced while digital printing reduces water usage by 95 percent.
Design strategies & techniques
- Zero Waste Pattern Cutting: This technique eliminates potential textile waste right at the design stage, where the pattern pieces are strategically laid like a jigsaw puzzle onto a precisely measured piece of fabric.
- Minimal Seam Construction: This technique allows faster manufacturing time by lessening the number of seams that are necessary to stitch a garment.
- Design for Disassembly (DfD): The main intention of this strategy involves designing a product in such a way that it can be easily taken apart at the end of its lifespan and this allows the use of fewer materials.
- Craft preservation: This technique combines and incorporates ancestral craft techniques into modern designs and in a way it ensures preservation of traditional craftsmanship through innovation.
- Transformational/Multifunctional: This strategy can be used to design products or garments that could be worn in numerous ways and can even have elements that are reversible. The best real-life example is the Carry on Closet fashion line created and developed by Antithesis.[better source needed]
- Pull Factor Framework: Brands such as L.L Bean and Harvey Nichols implemented a “Pull Factor Framework” which is a new methodology that strives to make sustainable innovation more enticing for consumers and producers alike.[better source needed]
Fast fashion brands like ASOS.com, Levi's, Macy's, North Face have turned to sizing technology that use algorithms to solve sizing issues, and give accurate size recommendations on their website to reduce environmental impact on returns. H&M's design team is implementing 3D design, 3D sampling and 3D prototyping to help cut waste, while artificial intelligence can be used to produce small garment runs for specific stores.
Companies are helping support the circular system in fashion production and consumer behavior by renting out clothes to customers with recycled or reuse items. New York & Company Closet and American Eagle Style Drop are examples of rental services that can be offered to customers when subscribed to the program. Tulerie, a smartphone application offers borrowing, renting, or sharing of clothes in local communities across the globe; users have the opportunity to profit by renting clothes as well.
In contrast to modern overconsumption, fast fashion traces its roots to World War II austerity, where high design was merged with utilitarian materials. The business model of fast fashion is based on consumers’ desire for new clothing to wear. In order to fulfill consumer's demand, fast fashion brands provide affordable prices and a wide range of clothing that reflects the latest trends. This ends up persuading consumers to buy more items which leads to the issue of overconsumption. Dana Thomas, author of Fashionopolis, stated that Americans spent 340 billion dollars on clothing in 2012, the same year of the Rana Plaza collapse.
Planned obsolescence plays a key role in overconsumption. Based on the study of planned obsolescence in The Economist, fashion is deeply committed to planned obsolescence. Last year's skirts; for example, are designed to be replaced by this year's new models. In this case, fashion goods are purchased even when the old ones are still wearable. The quick response model and new supply chain practices of fast fashion even accelerate the speed of it. In recent years, the fashion cycle has steadily decreased as fast fashion retailers sell clothing that is expected to be disposed of after being worn only a few times.
A 2014 article about fast fashion in Huffington Post pointed out that in order to make the fast moving trend affordable, fast-fashion merchandise is typically priced much lower than the competition, operating on a business model of low quality and high volume. Low quality goods make overconsumption more severe since those products have a shorter life span and would need to be replaced much more often. Furthermore, as both industry and consumers continue to embrace fast fashion, the volume of goods to be disposed of or recycled has increased substantially. However, most fast-fashion goods do not have the inherent quality to be considered as collectables for vintage or historic collections.
The fashion industry is known as the most labor dependent industry, as one in every six people works in acquiring raw materials and manufacturing clothing. H&M is the largest producer of clothing in under-developed South Asian and Southeast Asian countries such as India, Bangladesh and Cambodia. Nike has received backlash over its use of sweatshops. Bangladesh – a country known for its cheap labor, is home to four million garment production workers in over 5000 factories, out of which 85% are women.
Women and export processing zones
The International Labour Organization defines export processing zones as “industrial zones with special incentives set up to attract foreign investors, in which imported materials undergo some degree of processing before being re-exported”. These zones have been used by developing countries to bolster foreign investment, and produce consumer goods that are labour-intensive, like clothing. Many export processing zones have been criticized for their substandard working conditions, low wages, and suspension of international and domestic labour laws. Women account for 70-90% of the working population in some export processing zones, such as in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. Despite their overrepresentation in export processing zone informal sector (informal economy) employment, women are still likely to earn less than men. Mainly, this discrepancy is due to employer's preferring to hire men in technical and managerial positions and women in lower-skilled production work. Moreover, employers tend to prefer hiring women for production jobs because they are seen as more compliant and less likely to join labour unions. In addition, a report that interviewed Sri Lankan women working in export processing zones found that gender-based violence “emerged as a dominant theme in their narratives”. For example, 38% of women reported seeing or experiencing sexual harassment within their workplace. However, proponents of textile and garment production as a means for economic upgrading in developing countries (global value chain) have pointed out that clothing production work tends to have higher wages than other available jobs, such as agriculture or domestic service work, and therefore provides women with a larger degree of financial autonomy.
Film and media
- The True Cost is a 2015 documentary film focusing on fast fashion that is directed by Andrew Morgan.
- 'How fast fashion adds to the world's clothing waste problem' is a short 2018 documentary created by Marketplace that is a part of the CBC News network.
Design lawsuits and legislation
Lawsuits and proposed legislation in the U.S.
As of 2007, Forever 21, one of the larger fast fashion retailers, was involved in several lawsuits over alleged violations of intellectual property rights. The lawsuits contended that certain pieces of merchandise at the retailer can effectively be considered infringements of designs from Diane von Furstenberg, Anna Sui and Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Lovers line as well as many other well-known designers. Forever 21 has not commented on the state of the litigation but initially said it was "taking steps to organize itself to prevent intellectual property violations".
H.R. 5055, or Design Piracy Prohibition Act, was a bill proposed to protect the copyright of fashion designers in the United States. The bill was introduced into the United States House of Representatives on March 30, 2006. Under the bill designers would submit fashion sketches and/or photos to the U.S. Copyright Office within three months of the products’ "publication". This publication includes everything from magazine advertisements to the garment's first public runway appearances. The bill as a result, would protect the designs for three years after the initial publication. If infringement of copyright was to occur the infringer would be fined $250,000, or $5 per copy, whichever is a larger lump sum.
The Design Piracy Prohibition Act was reintroduced as H.R. 2033 during the first session of the 110th Congress on April 25, 2007. It had goals similar to H.R. 5055, as the bill proposed to protect certain types of apparel design through copyright protection of fashion design. The bill would grant fashion designs a three-year term of protection, based on registration with the U.S. Copyright Office. The fines of copyright infringement would continue to be $250,000 total or $5 per copied merchandise.
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