Theoretically, if you’ve ever typed a colon or semicolon in sequence with a parenthesis with the intent of indicating the emotional tone of a written statement, then you just might owe somebody a royalty fee. Contrary to all conventional wisdom, the use of certain emoticons — which is the term of art for those little smileys and frownies composed of punctuation marks — is trademarked in certain contexts. Seriously.

Despair, Inc., creator of the infamous Demotivator posters, owns the U.S. frownie copyright — but only on printed materials. A Russian entrepreneur, Oleg Teterin, claims rights to various smileys and frownies but promises not to enforce them on end users — just on deep-pocket tech outfits. And in Finland, where many a text-friendly mobile phone is made, almost as many emoticon expressions are protected under trademark law.

The secret to trademark and copyright enforcement is context. As mentioned, Despair, Inc. only locked up a particular frownie — 🙁 — in a few types of print media. Other emoticon claims revolve around the conversion of punctuation strings into animated images, as happens in instant message applications. Nobody could reasonably apply for, obtain, or enforce a blanket right to all emoticons everywhere. Moreover, trying to prevent people from typing out an emoticon without first paying a license fee is unlikely to get much legal backing, though common sense has little to do with it. You can thank the legal intellectual property concept of prior art.

The documented use of emoticons goes back more than a quarter century — and is older than the word emoticon itself. More to the point, the use of punctuation-based symbols to denote tone (especially sarcasm) is older still. No less a literary authority than Vladimir Nabokov told The New York Times in 1969 that, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.” The ARPAnet was just getting the hang of packet-switching at that point, so it’s safe to say the idea of an emoticon predates the Internet.

By 1982, Internet-based communication was common enough that its regular users had recognized the need for something akin to the “supine round bracket” that Nabokov proposed — and somebody said so. While many users probably independently solved the problem, one man gets credit for launching the emoticon concept — if not the word — into the online lexicon.


Get the answer.

Who is credited with inaugurating the era of the online emoticon — a tech pioneer who first formally proposed the use of a punctuation-based “smiley” to indicate the emotional tone of statements made on the Internet?

The visionary in question is Dr. Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. On Sept. 19, 1982, Fahlman posted the following message to the university’s general science Internet bulletin board:

“I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use


Fahlman’s proposal was quickly embraced on the Carnegie Mellon boards and from there spread to ARPAnet, then Usenet, and thus the world. None of which was anticipated or intentional, as Fahlman himself recounts the strikingly casual context of the post.

But Fahlman did not invent the smiley or the emoticon, despite his place in Internet history as the popularizer of both. The iconic yellow-and-black smiley face image was created by Harvey Ball in 1963 for an employee morale campaign at State Mutual Life Assurance Company. It fell into public domain and was pasted on every conceivable novelty item during the 1970s.

Roughly simultaneous to the pop-culture smiley’s debut, teletype operators were composing crude proto-emoticons for their typewritten communications. By the time the smiley face logo was popping up on buttons and t-shirts in the ’70s, users of the PLATO System were enjoying graphical emoticons called down by hotkey sequences. Finally, several British Telecom Internet users adopted a set of tongue-in-cheek emoticons — most similar to -) with other punctuation mixed in — three years before Fahlman’s famous post.

Thus, Fahlman didn’t conjure his smileys from whole cloth, but either serendipitously or subconsciously synthesized their current Internet incarnations. Not to worry; Fahlman has other accomplishments to fall back on. He’s done significant work on semantic and neural networks, as well as Carnegie Mellon’s Common Lisp programming language. Oh, and he created a Carnegie Mellon Award for the student who accomplishes the most to further technology-assisted person-to-person communication: The Smiley Award.

That’s not just some self-effacing educational advancement; it’s a self-consciously semi-serious slice of smile-worthy Geek Trivia.

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