It’s become common practice to include emojis in digital communications. They serve as a quick way to respond or interject tone. Emojis have become so endemic in online communication that they are considered legally binding in some situations.
Each year, more cases in U.S. courts treat emojis as legally binding. Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University, has written and talked about emojis and the law. He points out that people think they will not be held liable when using emojis, as if they differ from words or statements the person might otherwise make. This interpretation gives them plausible deniability, but that’s not how the legal system works. The court interprets words and symbols together when reviewing digital communications.
For example, if someone criticizes the police and writes, “I really hate the police,” that alone would not be actionable. But the message begins to appear like a threat against the police officers when coupled with the gun, bomb, or knife emoji. In this instance, the emoji will be interpreted in the context of the words used to determine whether or not a real threat to commit violence was made, which could lead to legal consequences.
Using emojis when chatting with someone about a transaction, such as selling a car or TV, can also be interpreted as acceptance of an agreement of sale. If the buyer sends a thumbs-up emoji after a discussion about price, that’s a legally binding contract. The buyer has committed to the purchase by the way in which the intent was expressed. Using an emoji versus typing “yes” or “I agree to buy this” or writing a signature on a piece of paper is immaterial. The symbol expressing your enthusiasm for the proposal can be enough to constitute a commitment that would be legally recognized.
In a recent Canadian case, the court issued a summary judgment that sending someone a thumbs-up symbol in a message can be viewed as acceptance of a contract.
The lawsuit centered on text messages between a grain supplier and a buyer. Following a phone discussion about the price, the buyer sent the seller an image of a contract and asked the seller to confirm the agreement. The seller responded with a thumbs-up emoji, which became the focal point of the confusion.
The seller claimed in the lawsuit that the symbol meant he had received the contract in the message. The buyer believed the emoji represented the seller agreeing to the contract terms. The buyer indicated that there had been previous instances where contracts were handled and agreed upon with the emoji. Because of the confusion, the seller failed to deliver the goods to the buyer.
The court researched the meaning of the emoji and its use worldwide. It determined that while the thumbs-up emoji is a non-traditional means of signing a document, it was nevertheless a valid way to convey acceptance in this case. As a result, the court ordered the seller to pay $61,442 to the buyer for failing to fulfill the contract.
So should you continue using emojis despite potential legal consequences? Absolutely. Emojis are fun and can be a more effective way of communicating emotion and personalizing messages.
But don’t treat emojis as a special class of content. They are potentially as legally binding as words or a signature. For situations involving transactions and contracts, it is best to say what you mean to avoid confusion. Giving the same weight to emojis as signatures comes with its own security concerns and increased ambiguity. Using formal documentation requiring dates and signatures to indicate acceptance of an agreement will ensure that both parties have a clear understanding of the contract.
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