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Unicode to add accessibility-themed emojis

The Unicode Consortium (“Unicode”), the group that controls emojis, has announced that its sixth update of the official database will include 230 emojis, some themed around disability or accessibility.

Unicode is made up of representatives of tech and software development companies and individuals with the remit to create, maintain, and develop the database of emojis. While smartphone operating system owners (such as Google and Apple) can tweak the emojis, they have to commit to ensuring that the individual images remain recognisable from device to device.

Unicode is so named because it standardises and makes uniform computing language (including the emoji database) that had historically been entirely disparate as between different operating systems. As such emojis (and emoticons before them) did not work on conversations between devices from different manufacturers.

The new emojis include men and women of various ethnicities walking with sticks or in or pushing wheelchairs, guide dogs, sign language, and hearing aids. The update to include accessibility emojis was driven by Apple, which, in April 2018, submitted a list of proposed images to be considered for induction.

Intellectual property rights in emojis has been quite a contentious issue. As the emojis themselves are Unicode, they are part of the worldwide computing language (like any computer letter or character) and, in the US at least, do not naturally attract copyright protection. However, as explained above each operating system owner makes subtle tweaks to the images, and those do attract copyright protection. Plenty of companies have hopped on to the emoji bandwagon to create clothing and accessories with some of the images, in some cases leading to threats of legal action.

If you have any questions on the above, please do not hesitate to contact the team at McDaniel & Co. on 0191 281 4000 or legal@mcdanielslaw.com.