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Are Emoji Protected by Copyright?

Emoji. They are universally beloved. In fact, I’m wondering why I’m even bothering to write this blog post with the boring old English alphabet. But, as with any other digital asset, just because everyone uses emoji doesn’t mean there aren’t some rules to follow. Let’s answer some emoji copyright questions.

Need a copyright refresher? Click here to listen to my podcast episode on copyrights.

“Emoji” is a Japanese word (which is, apparently, why the plural is also “emoji,” not “emojis.”) From a useful article on emoji licensing:

The Japanese spelling is 絵文字: 絵 (e) means ‘picture’ and 文字 (moji) means ‘letter.’ Picture letters. Simple.

In the U.S., as in most countries, copyright applies automatically when a copyrightable “work” is created and fixed in some tangible form, including digital formats. Emoji are just graphic works by another name. If you create a drawing of a smiley face, it’s protected by copyright…declaring it an “emoji” doesn’t change that.

So the short answer is that yes, there is such thing as an “emoji copyright.” More accurately, emoji can be and are protected by copyright.

In one sense, a group of emoji are just a fonts: a series of images that, individually or together, communicate some information. Copyright protection for fonts (or typefaces) is a bit of a complex issue that probably merits its own blog post. For now, it will suffice to say that computerized fonts are protected by copyright (as they are, effectively, software.)

Apple and other producers of digital devices either create, buy, or license the fonts included in their software. So the emoji that appear on your iPhone or Android keyboard are used under that set of legal arrangements. This is why emoji may look different on different devices.

You can use those emoji to say or communicate whatever you want. What you can’t necessarily do, however, is reproduce those emoji on a product. For that, you’d need a license.

Let’s say you really love a the emoji of the poop with the eyeballs. Who doesn’t love that one? (Click here to read The Oral History of the Poop Emoji.) Maybe you want to stick that image on a t-shirt and sell it. Well, in order to do that you’d nee a license. If you like Apple’s version of this image, you can start by contacting Apple’s legal department.

If Apple isn’t in a big rush to respond to your request, there may be alternatives. Here’s a link to a “completely free and open set of emoji. Good enough, right? Well, maybe not…if you read the fine print in the licensing section, it states “No emoji may be used in commercial printed, tangible or physical material.” Oops.

There are a variety of other emoji sets out there that have different levels of restriction. You may be able to find an image for free that suits your needs, but be sure to carefully read and follow the guidelines.

Alternatively, you can go to a stock photo site and pay to license an image. The poop emoji image that illustrates this article was licensed from Fotolia. I then used Canva (which is free, for the most part) to add the thought bubble. I’m going to say this again, though—read the rules before you use the image, even if you’ve paid for it. The license still may have some restrictions.

If you have any other emoji copyright questions, feel free to ask away in the comments. I promise to answer using regular old letters and not adorable cartoons.

EDIT: I’ve gotten a lot of comments on this post. I’m glad to see people engaging with this topic. Just remember, anything I write here, including in the comments section, should not be taken as legal advice. I’m not your lawyer, and engaging in this forum does not create an attorney-client relationship.

In addition, I’m not able to provide legal advice to a non-client. So I’m simply not going to respond to any comments that are seeking advice regarding your specific situation. I’m not ignoring you, and I appreciate the input, but I’ve found it’s just not efficient to keep responding something like “I can’t answer specific legal questions on this blog” over and over again.

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