Facebook's blatant rip-off of Bitmoji avatars is a legal lesson in skirting copyright

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/05/20/facebooks-blatant-rip-off-of.html

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Can we just outlaw emojis? Who the hell thought they were a good idea? Even if someone is making a reasonable point and ends it with some stupid cartoon…the stupid cartoon is what I remember.


Oh, man, those 3-D ones are getting too close to the Uncanny Valley for me.


:roll_eyes: :woman_shrugging: :skull_and_crossbones: :mechanical_arm: :female_detective:


Why does the FB emoji person need a shave?

Okay, now you’re making me want to respond with an…emoji.



Honestly, it’s a perfectly acceptable mode of online communication, as are gifs, as are memes, etc. It’s like saying the only acceptable means of speech is proper English. If it gets the point across and successfully communicated the person’s meaning, then it’s done it’s job.


That’s bull :poop: !

Goddamnit! You made me break my rule!


There’s a world of difference between straight-up copying artwork and imitating UX patterns.


Yes: if.

Emoji, gifs, and memes can be a perfectly acceptable means of communication. But they are also more tightly bound to cultural and temporal references. And among friends, tight communities, and ephemeral messages that’s fine (sometimes helpful and desired!)

But outside these contexts it introduces ambiguity, and can make both sides miss that a different message was conveyed than intended. It also makes strategic ambiguity easier to pass off as a quirk of the medium. For gifs and memes specifically, the copy-and-paste nature makes it easier to distance oneself from the act of writing the message. From this inauthenticity, meanness, and dismissiveness all become more likely to pass through the weakened filter of “should I really say that?”

We shouldn’t throw these communication tools away, but they are often misused and overused. A “whatever.gif” as a response to a thoughtful essay does not lead to better communities and discussions, and it is far more likely to pop up than a single word comment of “whatever”.


It’s hard to pack all of ROTFLASTC into one emoji.


Conversation, especially online, is already LOADED with ambiguity, hence the use of the /s for sarcasm coding. Too many types of speech simply can’t be duplicated easily. Memes, gifs and emojis don’t change that, and actually can help increase clarity.

For example:
You’re a jerk! (mean, belligerent, aggressive)
You’re a jerk! :wink: :cupid: (playful, kidding, friendly)

Our methods of communicating with each other are fast changing and adapting. I personally am entranced by the way memes/gifs are being used to replace dialogue while still getting across the same messages. Even when it’s a minimal effort “whatever”.

Or this guy.



I think the thing I get about this the least is that the bitmoji artworks are horrible to start with. The limbs are all weirdly proportioned, even for cartoons, and the people look nothing like the actual users.

There’s so much scope to do this BETTER, but they just chose to do it the SAME.

Like everything facebook, it just feels cynical. Move fast and break things indeed.



I can’t think of a non-authoritarian reason to do that, so



The real question is who decided the best way for humans to communicate with each other was strictly through the use of totally abstract visual icons (words) rather than representational images (pictures) or some combo of both to begin with!

From Shlain’s The Alphabet vs. The Goddess:

This groundbreaking book proposes that the rise of alphabetic literacy reconfigured the human brain and brought about profound changes in history, religion, and gender relations. Making remarkable connections across brain function, myth, and anthropology, Dr. Shlain shows why pre-literate cultures were principally informed by holistic, right-brain modes that venerated the Goddess, images, and feminine values. Writing drove cultures toward linear left-brain thinking and this shift upset the balance between men and women, initiating the decline of the feminine and ushering in patriarchal rule.


I was a fairly early adopter of Bitstrips (learned about it from Boingboing) and a longtime user before Bitmoji and the Snapchat acquisition and all that. Of course Bitmoji was the money maker so the comic service is now 4 years gone, but they did send me a link to all my old strips.
I wish someone could bring that ocmic builder back, where you could actually make comics with your avatars, and original characters. They had a good toolset, and other comic makers still don’t measure up. Sigh…Good times.

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I’m looking at this a different way. I don’t think Facebook “skirted” any legalities, or that they even acted particularly unethical here. (I must be missing something.)

Many people don’t know that in America, fonts can’t be copyrighted. During a legal battle, the courts found that as fonts were the basis of writing, they had to be protected to prevent people from abusing copyright to prevent others from using them to write their own words and ideas. (Clearly not the same court that found in favor of Disney’s nearly limitless copyright extensions.) You can trademark font names, so nobody else can call their set of sans serif straight line glyphs “Helvetica®”, or “Times Roman®”. And since most computer fonts are TrueType, they are actually implemented as software instructions that define brush strokes, diameters, directions, etc.; these instructions to draw a glyph in a font are copyrightable, just like any other computer program. So as long as you write your own instructions to draw the letter A, you can write them to make it look exactly like Helvetica®, but you can’t name it Helvetica, you can’t pretend that it was produced by Linotype, and you can’t start by copying Helvetica’s instructions. Thus Arial® was born.

Are we all clear on that so far?

As emojis are used to convey parts of words and ideas, they’re similar to letters. And technically, they’re implemented as an extension of the Unicode character set. So it’s not a stretch to imagine emojis being closer to uncopyrightable glyphs in an alphabet than they are to copyrightable pictures. Plus, there’s a long tradition of copycat art out there; you are allowed to paint and sell your own pictures of an old couple with a pitchfork in front of a farmhouse, just so long as you don’t also name it “American Gothic” or try to sell it as artwork painted by Grant Wood.


I thought Boing Boing was, on the whole, a copyright-minimalist blog, but maybe now that Cory has left for greener pastures (bon voyage!) that’s all over?


Generally, I’m on board with what you’re saying, but I don’t think these are emoji (and so aren’t subject to whatever agreements the Unicode character set is subject to).