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Emojis Begin Cropping Up Outside Of Your Smartphone


Emojis are no longer just for smartphones. Those smiley faces, thumbs up and pizza slices are now cropping up in the real world. That's where we start this week's All Tech Considered.


SHAPIRO: These days, there are emoji backpacks, emoji light switches. There's even an emoji movie on the way. NPR's Stephan Bisaha reports on the spread of these cartoon-like images.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: Roberto Hoyos started selling emoji pillows online with his company Throwboy about three years ago. The pillows quickly established themselves as his top seller, and not just with the standard smiley face.

ROBERTO HOYOS: In that line we have a poop emoji pillow, and I would say that's probably been our biggest hit to date.

BISAHA: Since then, lots of companies have hopped onto the emoji bandwagon, selling an emoji version of just about everything - emoji slippers, speakers, perfume.

TARA ALBA: Key chains, bracelets, purses.

RUSS RUSSO: Blankets, soap, ChapStick.

BISAHA: Russ Russo and Tara Alba sit on her bed in her New Jersey home. Nearly everything in the room has an emoji face on it, from the purse hanging on the wall to the blanket spread across the bed. They've been dating for about a year, and their go-to gift for each other is anything emoji. Part of the appeal is how universal emojis are.

RUSSO: You should tell the story about the car.

ALBA: Oh, I just bought a car from somebody in New York, and he was sending me a message. And instead of using the words he would actually use the emoji.

BISAHA: After finalizing the deal, the seller sent Alba a message to pick up the car. Instead of typing the word cash, he used a bag of money emoji. Instead of typing car...

ALBA: It was an actual emoji car. He spoke in emoji.

RUSSO: Yeah.

BISAHA: And you understood perfectly what he was saying?

ALBA: Yes.

BISAHA: But the main reason Alba and Russo keep buying emoji products is how important emojis were to the start of their relationship.

ALBA: We didn't get to see each other a lot in the beginning, so it was unsure about our relationship. But when someone's sending you a kissy face or hearts then it makes you know.

BISAHA: Consumers like Alba and Russo are why emoji products have taken off. But that caused Roberto Hoyos to worry. He didn't know if legally he could sell emoji pillows.

HOYOS: And that's kind of like a lot of startups (laughter), to be honest. They'll kind of get the ball rolling and then, you know, cross their T's and dot their I's when they get there.

BISAHA: Usually manufacturers have to get permission from and pay royalties to whoever owns a brand. But emojis aren't a brand, at least not a traditional one. When Hoyos eventually did look into it, he found out that no one actually owns emojis.

HOYOS: We've talked to many, many people, many lawyers just to try to make sure, like, we have this, like, we're cool. And it is.

JEREMY BURGE: You can't say the idea of a pizza emoji is mine.

BISAHA: Jeremy Burge sits on something called the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee. He spoke to us over Skype. Unicode is a nonprofit responsible for maintaining and releasing new emojis. Burge says they're free to use. It's like an alphabet, and you can't copyright letters. But what you can copyright is a font, as in the design of an emoji.

BURGE: If I draw a specific version in an emoji font of a pizza I own in that image. So Apple owns their emoji images and so does every company.

BISAHA: Some manufacturers do pay for emoji designs, but the companies that design their own don't have to pay royalties, one of the reasons so many have joined the emoji boom. But for all the success, it could still be just another fad, leaving companies to wonder if the emoji future is a smile or frown. Stephan Bisaha, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephan Bisaha
Stephan Bisaha is a former NPR Kroc Fellow. Along with producing Weekend Edition, Stephan has reported on national stories for Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other NPR programs. He provided data analysis for an investigation into the Department of Veteran Affairs and reported on topics ranging from Emojis to mattresses.
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