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League City woman alleges Apple stole emoji designs

Katrina Parrott demonstrates the hand-washing gif that is part of a collection of Covid-related iDiversicons on her phone inside her home office in League City, Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. Parrott and her business Cub Club Investment, LLC, has filed a copyright infringement suit against Apple for creating a similar set of emojis to the ones she copyrighted iDiversicons. Parrott developed the emojis in the interest of inclusion only to be excluded from the process by Apple, the suit claims.

Mark Mulligan, Houston Chronicle / Staff photographer

Katrina Parrott, who is Black, got the idea from her daughter in 2013 and founded Cub Club Investments to launch iDiversicons on the Apple App Store several months later, according to her complaint. Tech leaders in Silicon Valley saw its potential, the suit alleges, but after a back-and-forth between Parrott and Apple executives, Apple decided to create its own emojis rather than work with her.

The copyright infringement suit was filed Sept. 18 in the Waco Division of the U.S. District Court’s Western District of Texas, which has developed expertise in the area of intellectual property, according to Parrott’s attorney, Todd Patterson. Looking to bring the fight to its own turf, Apple has filed for a change of venue, he said, and he’s awaiting the court’s decision.

Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

Shortly after launching in the app store, Parrott joined the Unicode Consortium, a Silicon Valley nonprofit devoted to software standards, she said in her lawsuit. She said she worked to alert tech leaders to the issue of diversity and inclusion.

Apple participated in consortium meetings and became interested in Parrott’s work, the suit alleges. Parrott said she provided Apple a thumb drive containing her emoji creations in May 2014, and that September the two parties began discussing implementation.

Parrott said in court papers that she learned the following month that Apple would use its own designers. Once Apple launched its diverse emoji line in April 2015, app sales at Parrott’s company dropped off, the lawsuit states.

Parrott’s suit alleges that if unchecked, Apple’s actions could set a precedent that a big tech company could misappropriate the proprietary works of smaller companies rather than work with them directly. Parrott also alleges Apple harms the minority communities the emojis were supposed to support.

“This could have been something really magnanimous, to see a giant embrace a Black-woman-owned small business. To help her succeed,” she said in an interview. “And instead it was the exact opposite.”

Parrott’s lightbulb moment came in 2013 when her daughter, then a junior at University of Texas in Austin, turned to her during a weekend visit home and said, “It sure would be nice to be able to send an emjoi to my friends that looks like me.” Parrott, 55 at the time, had previously managed logistics and procurement teams at NASA, and she decided to deploy her skills toward building a new kind of team.

She hired a software developer, an illustrator and got to work, investing her life’s savings in the startup. When she started talking about the concept in Silicon Valley boardrooms full of older white men, she said, racially diverse emojis were something people had started talking about, but not very seriously.

“They didn’t move as fast as I did,” she said.

Apple engineers and executives wanted to know how she’d done it, what color palettes she used, she said in an interview. She recalled the moment when she pulled an Apple executive aside and suggested the company provide iPhone users five skin tone options they can select for themselves rather than the company choose for them.

“They benefited tremendously from me but I was not able to capitalize,” she said, noting sales at her company now are barely enough to keep her gas tank full. “Once they came on the scene, mine took a backseat.”

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