According to Buzzfeed news in 2013, Katrina Parrott came up with the idea of emojis in diverse skin tones, years before they made their way to smartphones around the world.
Ten years later, the Black mom from League City, Texas, said she is still waiting for recognition for her idea — and a patent, for which she has been rejected multiple times.
“It’s really frustrating,” Parrott told BuzzFeed News in an interview, “when you put your heart and soul and resources into an idea that has impacted so many lives, and then be rejected when you go to the place to formally get recognized for it.”
A week ago lawmakers used Parrott’s example to demand answers from the US Patent and Trademarks Office about why people of color, women, and other underrepresented inventors are granted significantly fewer patents than Big Tech.
On Monday, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Democratic Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas sent a letter to the USPTO demanding answers to a dozen questions around the subject by Feb. 28. The letter came about after Parrott approached Warren for help.
“We are writing to express our concerns regarding the disproportionate challenges that small businesses, women, people of color, and other underrepresented minorities face in the patent approval process,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, a copy of which was reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
They pointed out that Parrott has received multiple patent rejections for her diverse emojis over five years, while Apple, whom Parrott unsuccessfully sued for copyright infringement, was granted more than 2,500 patents in 2021 alone.
“When giant tech companies like Apple are granted patent after patent by the USPTO, women and entrepreneurs of color face steep hurdles in getting credit for their ideas — and too often see their patents rejected,” Warren said in a statement provided to BuzzFeed News. “The USPTO needs to do a full accounting of how and why entrepreneurs of color disproportionately have their patents rejected and level the playing field for small business owners taking on Big Tech.”
In a response to a BuzzFeed News inquiry, a USPTO spokesperson said that the office “is well aware that both in the US and in our allied countries, the rate of participation in the innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem, including in patenting, is not representative of our communities at large.” They added, “The USPTO has undertaken extensive and concerted efforts during the Biden Administration to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout the US patent system, as well as to identify any reasons those who apply for patents are not awarded them.”
“I feel as if I’ve been harmed,” Parrott said. “And I just want my patents at this point.”
Parrott is 64 and has worked in the aerospace industry for more than two decades. One weekend in 2013, her daughter, Katy, came home from school and lamented that she couldn’t send an emoji that looked like her to her friends. “My first question was: ‘What’s an emoji?’” Parrott recalled.
When she researched, she realized that there was an easy solution — creating emojis that didn’t all look alike but came in five distinct skin tones. She hired a software engineer, an illustrator, a copyright specialist, and a videographer, using more than $200,000 of her savings, and ultimately launched an app called iDiversicons in Apple’s App Store later that year. For 99 cents a pop, people could get more than 300 diverse emojis, which they would need to copy and paste into messages since Apple didn’t allow other companies to manipulate the iPhone’s keyboard at the time.
In 2014, she was invited to present at the Unicode Consortium, a Silicon Valley nonprofit in charge of standardizing emojis so that they can be sent across devices and operating systems. The consortium counts large tech companies like Apple and Google among its members. “All of these giants were coming up to me at Unicode and telling me how nobody took emoji diversity seriously until I came along,” Parrott said.
That presentation led to a meeting with Apple executives at the company’s Cupertino, California, headquarters. They reportedly were impressed. Parrott said she left the meeting hoping to strike a partnership with the tech giant to incorporate her diverse emojis into the iPhone’s keyboard.
Later that year, the members of the Unicode Consortium agreed to include five different skin tones as a standard of emoji thanks to Parrott’s push, according to a Washington Post report.
But a few weeks later, Apple declined to work with Parrott on diverse emoji, saying that the company would design its own based on Unicode standards and build them directly into the iPhone’s keyboard. The move made iDiversicons redundant.
“I thought I was doing everything right,” Parrott said. “It was tremendously disappointing.”
Parrott then spent more than five years trying to get a patent for her creation, but the USPTO kept rejecting her applications and subsequent appeals.
In 2020, she filed a lawsuit against Apple for copyright infringement. Apple’s lawyers reportedly argued that “copyright does not protect the idea of applying five different skin tones to emoji because ideas are not copyrightable.” Last year, a US district judge threw out her suit, declaring that her idea of diverse emojis was “unprotectable.”
“It appeared to me that the judge had already made up his mind, even before we had an opportunity to share anything,” Parrott said.
A disproportionate number of new patents in the US go to rich corporations over small, independent business owners, especially those run by women and people of color. According to one study, over 50% of new US patents went to the top 1% wealthiest patentees in 2020.
And another survey, from 2010, found that from 1970 to 2006, Black American inventors received just six patents per million people, compared with 235 patents per million for all American inventors. A 2016 study also found that Black Americans applied for patents at nearly half the rate of whites.
Jessica Morel, chief marketing officer at LexisNexis Intellectual Property Solutions, described the patent situation as “David versus Goliath.” She said, “It is undoubtedly challenging for individual inventors of all races, genders, and ethnicities, and often smaller companies, to get their patents approved, especially compared to enterprises with specialized expertise, such as patent attorneys, dedicated software platforms, and a track record of successful patent filings.”
Still, other experts argued that Parrott’s original idea for diverse emojis was never patentable to begin with.
“Abstract concepts like different skin color emoji are not something that’s usually patentable,” Ryan Schneer, founder and CEO of Schneer IP Law, a New York–based intellectual property law firm, and a former patent examiner at the USPTO, told BuzzFeed News. “If Apple or Google’s lawyers tried to file the same thing, it would be rejected too.”
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