First designed in 1999 by Japanese designer Shigetaka Kurita, emojis were supposed to make our lives easier, or perhaps more fun, by providing a communicative shortcut. Twenty-four years later, as texting has supplanted voice calling, our conversations are littered with them. As it turns out, this can lead to legal trouble.
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Kent Mickleborough is a grain buyer for a Canadian company. Chris Achter is a Canadian farmer from whom Mickleborough has purchased flax from over the years. Each order requires a fresh contract, as grain prices fluctuate. Their negotiations typically happen via text message and images, with Mickleborough texting a photo of the latest contract to Achter, who confirms the terms and, months later, delivers the order.
In early 2021, Mickleborough texted an image of one such contract to Achter, an order for 68 tons of flax, along with the sentence “Please confirm flax contract.”
Achter responded with a thumbs-up emoji.
But in November of that year, when the order was due to arrive, Achter didn’t deliver. And if Mickleborough wanted to order anew, he’d have to pay more, as the price of flax had gone up.
The resultant dispute wound up in court, with Achter denying a thumbs-up emoji is a yes. “I deny that [Mickleborough] accepted the thumbs-up emoji as a digital signature of the incomplete contract,” Achter’s affidavit read, according to CBC News. “I did not have time to review the Flax Contract and merely wanted to indicate that I did receive his text message.”
Justice Timothy Keene called ???? and ruled against Achter, ordering him to pay a CAD $82,000 (USD $61,784) fine. Justice Keene stated in his ruling:
“This Court readily acknowledges that a [thumbs-up] emoji is a non-traditional means to ‘sign’ a document but nevertheless under these circumstances this was a valid way to convey the two purposes of a ‘signature’.
“This Court cannot (nor should it) attempt to stem the tide of technology and common usage – this appears to be the new reality in Canadian society and courts will have to be ready to meet the new challenges that may arise from the use of emojis and the like.”
What would a U.S. judge say? It’s just a matter of time before we find out; we Americans love suing one another.