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Emojis: Copyright Law Can Turn Fun Little Symbols Into Big Headaches

Emojis are small symbols, often smiley faces, used in electronic messages and web pages. Emojis are distinguished from emoticons, which are pictorial representations made using punctuation marks, numbers and letters, such as :) or :-(.   

Emojis: Copyright Law Can Turn Fun Little Symbols Into Big Headaches

Emojis, like other types of visual art, can be protected by copyright. Big tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, etc. each use their own distinct set of emojis. For example, a collection of “smiley face with heart shaped eyes” emojis offered by different companies are shown below:

Apple iOS 9.3

Google Android 6.0.1

Microsoft Windows 10

Samsung Galaxy S7



Each emoji provides the same general impression of love and happiness, but they differ in color, shading, mouth shape, size and orientation of eyes, etc.

It is challenging to enforce copyright in an emoji or other creative work against an unauthorized user unless the copyright has been registered with the federal government. Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine specifically which emojis are actually covered by registered U.S. copyrights. The Copyright Office database lists copyright registrations, but does not display the artwork associated with the registrations. Also, a copyright registration may have a generic title, such as “Artwork #3,” which does not identify that the copyright protected artwork is an emoji. As such, there is no easily-accessible list of copyright-protected emoji designs.

To minimize risk, it is prudent to assume that each company which has developed and offers its own set of emojis has registered its copyright in the emojis. If you are considering offering a product incorporating an existing emoji, such as a t-shirt displaying the emoji, either confirm that the emoji is in the public domain or seek permission of the company which created the emoji. Alternatively, you may wish to create your own unique emojis.

If you have any questions regarding these or other copyright matters, please contact Brian Chellgren or another copyright attorney at Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP.

To learn more about Brian W. Chellgren and his practice, visit his profile.

  • Partner

    Brian is an attorney in the firm's Lexington office, a member of the firm's Business Services Department, and Chair of the Intellectual Property Practice Group. A registered patent attorney with degrees in molecular biology (B.S ...



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