For the staggering 92 percent of the world that uses emojis, it might be time to think harder before plopping one into a text. The thumbs up (👍) is one of the most commonly used emojis in the world, and according to a recent court case in Canada, the tiny yellow hand holds significant legal implications.
In the case South West Terminal Ltd. v Achter Land, defendant Chris Achter, a Canadian farmer in Saskatchewan, sent a thumbs-up emoji to a customer in 2021, after the customer sent him a photograph of a signed flax-buying contract. Reuters reports that months later, the delivery of 87 metric tons of flax never took place. Achter argued that the thumbs up only meant that he had received the image of the contact, not that he signed it. The grain buyer Kent Mickleborough, one of Achter’s regulars, considered a thumbs up the equivalent of other quick texting but still contract-confirming responses that Achter had sent him previously, such as “yup” or “ok.”
Enter a court case that “led the parties to a far flung search for the equivalent of the Rosetta Stone in cases from Israel, New York State and some tribunals in Canada, etc. to unearth what a 👍 emoji means,” Justice Timothy Keene wrote in the decision.
Keene came to the conclusion that a thumbs up counts as an agreement, citing the dictionary.com definition of the emoji as a symbol “used to express assent, approval or encouragement in digital communications, especially in Western cultures.” The thumbs up, Keene wrote, does the same two things as a signature—identifying the signator and conveying acceptance of the contract.
Jean-Pierre Jordaan, the lawyer for Achter in the case, apparently warned Keene that allowing the thumbs up emoji to hold so much power could “open the flood gates” for what all sorts of emojis could mean, including the 👊 or the 🤝, according to the decision. Eric Goldman, a law professor and co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University School of Law, dove into 45 different court opinions across the US on similar emoji-centered topics. He argued that people use the thumbs up emoji sarcastically or as a notice of merely accepting a message. He also noted that it is offensive in some cultures.
“This case won’t definitively resolve what a thumbs-up emoji means,” Goldman told the New York Times last week, “but it does remind people that using the thumbs-up emoji can have serious legal consequences.”
Keene ruled that Achter owed the equivalent of $61,442 for the unfulfilled contract–a hefty price for a tiny thumb.