CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - The emoji of hands pressed together could mean 'thank you or 'I'll pray for you' or 'I'm begging here.' It's hard to know for sure. But these fun little symbols are now causing not-so-fun issues.
"As images become more important in our society the court cases are going to follow," said Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University who studies emojis, and their historic impact in dozens of legal cases-- from criminal law to real estate law to work contracts. Not only might one image mean different things, but it might actually be seen differently on each phone.
"There's going to be more misinterpretations, and there's going to be more misunderstandings," said Goldman.
Even Unicode, the group that defines what each cute little symbol is called, says emojis are, "…used in ways that have multiple meanings." And, "..as for determining the exact meaning intended in a legal case, that will be up to the courts to decide."
Here's one example that Goldman explained.
"When a lawyer was negotiating on behalf of his client and he made a statement that sounded like he was admitting his client was guilty, but then he followed it with the emoticon that was what we called the 'winky', designed to suggest that it was a sarcastic or disingenuous remark. And the court read the sentence and totally got it. They understood that 'winky' negated the textual meaning that the lawyer had written, and that the lawyer wasn't admitting guilt on the part of his client."
In that case, the semicolon and end parenthesis were the difference between jail time and no big deal.
A key issue: figuring out intent when emoticons or symbols are used. In another case, a teen was arrested after posting a police officer emoji and a gun. Some saw it as a threat. Others said that was a stretch. (Officials decided not to prosecute.)
Goldman says to expect more confusion and more court cases, explaining, "As images become more important in our society, they're going to lead to legal consequences and there are more challenges."
So, what do you need to know to keep yourself out of trouble? Goldman says, "Just knowing the way you interpret an emoji may not be the same as the person you're sending it to. And so picking their emoji very carefully, and making sure that they cannot be misunderstood is essential."