In today’s digital age, as workdays have bled into personal time and the average American seemingly busier than ever, some communication circles have evolved from traditional “conversational” text to include a vast array of symbols, icons, and expressive faces, better known as emojis. These colorful characters have become an integral part of how younger generations – and even some older ones – express themselves in written communication. This abbreviated chat style can quickly convey emotions and nuances that traditional written text might struggle to capture, and in far less time to boot. However, as emojis have gained widespread usage and popularity, they’ve also surprisingly begun to take on legal ramifications, leading to intriguing discussions and even court proceedings that have ruled on their intended interpretations.
Emojis in Legal Findings
Once strictly confined to casual conversations, emojis have now made their way into the legal realm, raising difficult questions about their legal validity. Emojis are no longer just silly embellishments meant to spice up text: they have started to become utilized in legally binding contracts, court documents, and even evidence in court cases.
The question of whether an emoji can hold legal weight revolves around the principle of intent. In legal contracts, parties must demonstrate their intent to enter into an agreement, and emojis can theoretically play a role in establishing that intent. However, the purposely vague nature of emojis also introduces a layer of oft-unwanted ambiguity due to their subjective interpretation. What one party might perceive as a friendly gesture could be viewed differently by another, potentially leading to misunderstandings and disputes down the road.
The Subjectivity of Emoji Interpretation
Indeed, the use of emojis in legal battles has given rise to intriguing cases that emphasize the complexities of their interpretation. As the popular use of emojis has grown over the years, some have developed multiple interpretations to incorporate slang, inside jokes, or evolved meanings. For example, the ‘folded hands’ emoji seen here – 🙏 – has come to symbolize a ‘high five’ gesture of celebration, hands in prayer, please, or thank you, depending on the situation and parties involved. Emojis, like words, can carry different connotations based on context, cultural background, and personal experience. This creates an especially difficult challenge for judges and legal professionals tasked with accurately understanding the message that a particular emoji’s use was intended to convey.
For instance, a typically harmless emoji used in conjunction with a possibly threatening or negative message could easily muddle the perception of the message’s true intent. This poses a significant hurdle for courts, as they must assess whether said message contains a genuine implied threat or is merely a misinterpreted expression.
Rocket Ships and Money Bags = Promises of Wealth?
The legal battles over emojis aren’t just limited to interpreting the meaning behind interactions – they have also made their way to the realm of securities law. For NBA Top Shot, the seemingly innocent use of a few emojis in a tweet was enough to cause quite the flagrant foul. After being sued over the use of a rocket ship and ‘money bags’ emojis in a tweet promoting NFTs, a judge ruled that the aforementioned emojis could not only be interpreted as promising financial returns on an investment, but also legally constituted an investment contract under the Howey Test.
Although no associated words promising anything of the sort were used in the tweet, NBA Top Shot was found to have violated securities law by implying they were offering NFTs for sale without filing registration paperwork with the SEC, whether or not that was the tweet creator’s intent. Such a ruling certainly creates precedent that even seemingly insignificant digital expressions could lead to substantial legal consequences.
In another example, a company’s CEO used a rocket emoji in a tweet, accompanied by positive news about the company’s recent financial performance. Again, the rocket emoji is often used to signify rapid growth or success and this tweet was taken as a public announcement and even a ‘signal’ of sorts to invest by some shareholders. When the company later encountered financial difficulties and its stock fell, shareholders felt misled by the earlier emoji tweet, prompting a group of them to file a securities fraud lawsuit.
Balancing Informal Expression with Formal Legal Precision
The clash between the informal, ‘slangy’ nature of emojis and the precise language required by law has created yet another burgeoning source of digital age tension in the legal world. As emojis become more ingrained in our online and text communications, courts and legal experts are increasingly presented with new related challenges they must navigate. While emojis can add a layer of emotional depth and nuance to text-based communication, their inherent subjectivity and multiple meanings require an extra layer of care and consideration when used in legal contexts.
From contracts to courtrooms, emojis are leaving their mark, but not without raising important questions about their interpretation and legal significance. As technology continues to evolve, there is little doubt that the legal system will encounter more cases that place greater emphasis on the meaning of these perfunctory little symbols. If you have questions about similar disputes, disagreements, or provisions concerning emojis or other ‘text speak’ slang when it comes to securities, and are curious about the legal ramifications therein, Richards Rodriguez & Skeith’s securities law team may be able to help! Contact us today to find out more!