Emoji history of US copyright

The number of kinds of works covered by copyright has increased a lot over the years. The first copyright act, in 1790, covered just books, maps, and charts. Subsequent laws have added things like music, photos, and film. For a real history you can check the Copyright Office circular, but here’s an emoji timeline.

1790: 📚🌎📈
1802: 🐾
1831: 🎼🎶
1856: 🎭
1865: 📷
1870: 🎨
1897: 🎤
1912: 🎥
1972: 💿
1990: 🏠
1998: 🚤

And a selection of Supreme Court cases:

1903: 🎪
1984: 📼
1991: ☎📚

(By the way, WordPress now supports emoji. Go WordPress!)

The original racist emoji issue

Over at Ratter, I’ve written about how the unrecognized character symbol is showing up in an unfortunate context with the new emoji-of-color, and how this all relates to an Ur-issue of emoji racism. In my opinion, the moment this became an issue was when Apple exported emoji that mostly looked white to us.

After all, the Unicode Consortium only provides the list of possible emoji to platforms like Apple, Android, and Twitter — it’s up to the platforms to actually draw them. Platforms like Apple got a descriptions from the Unicode Consortium like “HAPPY PERSON RAISING ONE HAND” or “POLICE OFFICER” and they created the pictures we’re all familiar with. Because Apple was one of the first platforms to draw emoji, their versions — which feature mostly white faces — became the canon.

This was harder to write than I expected, but I think it’s an interesting and surprisingly convoluted issue. Hopefully this explanation helps people understand some of the forces at play here.

The US government should release these 7,584 fruit paintings

The federal government is sitting on 7,584 historical agricultural watercolor paintings that it should make freely available to the public today. Currently, people have access only to low-quality previews of the images; the United States Department of Agriculture, where the archive is held, should serve the public interest by making the entire collection of high quality scans free for all.


The USDA’s National Agricultural Library hosts the Pomological Watercolor Collection, which contains images of different varieties of fruits and nuts, commissioned between 1886 and 1942.

They’re remarkable as art, and also have serious scientific importance: they are some of the only documentation, for example, of thousands of apple types that no longer exist. The USDA has called the Pomological Watercolor Collection “Perhaps the most attractive as well as historically important of NAL’s treasures,” and it was cited just this week in a Washington State University article about apple preservation efforts.

The public should have access to these images, and that access should be automatic and unrestricted. Fortunately, that is technically possible: the USDA, through a grant from an environmental non-profit called The Ceres Trust, went though a multi-year digitization effort and now has high-quality scans of every image. However, members of the public can currently only view low-resolution versions online, can only request up to three high-quality scans free of charge, and must pay $10 per file beyond that.


And though the order page touts the fact that a portion of proceeds will go to conservation efforts, the numbers just don’t add up. I suspected that conservation costs are orders of magnitude higher than reproduction revenues, so I asked. Through a FOIA request to the USDA, I obtained the digitization project report, as well as a breakdown of the last three and a half years of revenues that the collection has generated.

Digitizing the images cost $288,442. Since the collection went online in 2011, members of the public have ordered just 81 images, for a total of $565. That relatively tiny amount simply cannot justify the cost to the public of keeping these images behind a paywall.

There’s no question that these paintings, if made more available, could be creating value for the public. High quality images could be used in printed teaching materials, which can spur conservation efforts and spark agricultural research interests in students. They could illustrate relevant articles on Wikipedia, providing historical context from over a hundred years of agriculture. The high quality scans could be examined closely by independent researchers to turn up new information.

The collection could even expand if it is accessible enough, as the National Agricultural Library described in its own report: one researcher, on hearing about the digitization project, contributed seven contemporaneous paintings of blueberries that had been stored in his lab.


Again, here’s the USDA’s own words on the importance of public access to the collection:

With today’s growing interest in heirloom varieties and others that are no longer commonly grown, the collection is an invaluable storehouse of fruit knowledge and history.

That knowledge is better served if the public has access to the scans, and it’s possible to do that today. If the cost of hosting and bandwidth is an issue, the Internet Archive and Wikimedia Commons would almost certainly be willing to host even the highest resolution scans.

Public domain victory! SpaceX photos now belong to you

It’s an exciting time for photographs from space. Last month, when Elon Musk’s privately held company SpaceX posted photos taken during a successful satellite launch, I noted that, unlike every picture NASA has ever taken, these wouldn’t enter the public domain immediately by default. It may have been an unintended side effect of the copyright rule about government works, but for whatever reason the public domain grew with each space photo, and that would be stopping. That’s a bummer, and I called for Elon Musk to fix it by dedicating his company’s new photos to the public domain.

This month, we’ve had a victory in two parts. First, after press inquiries and the like, SpaceX announced that it would be opening a repository of photos on Flickr, and that beyond just allowing public access, it would release those photos under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license. I don’t love NonCommercial licenses for a lot of reasons, but still, that was a nice show of good faith and I appreciated that a major company would take the effort.


But then another remarkable thing happened. When Musk tweeted about putting those photos online, somebody replied suggesting the public domain—and then Musk agreed. It was a remarkable exchange, and just a few minutes later he declared that he’d changed the license.

There was some confusion, as Flickr doesn’t generally allow photos to be marked as truly public domain—that would require a CC0 waiver, or a declaration that the photos otherwise have no restrictions—so on that platform they were instead set to the most permissive license available, Creative Commons Attribution. Jessamyn West wrote a great post explaining how that meant that the photos weren’t really in the public domain, for some purposes.

But on SpaceX’s own site, they are clearly marked with a CC0 waiver. And as such, they’ve been uploaded to platforms like the Wikimedia Commons, where they can bear the same freedoms. This may be a small campaign—targeting just one company, and not changing any systemic policies—but the victory is real and exciting. Thank you, Elon Musk, for setting an example and helping to grow the public domain.

Anonymous speech could be caught in the online abuse crossfire

Over at Wired, I wrote a piece earlier this month responding to reports from Tor users that they were having trouble using Twitter anonymously. It bears noting that we don’t really know what exactly Twitter’s up to, but given the timing of these events (and the fact that they can be consistently, if not universally, reproduced), it seems that this might be an attempt to crack down on abuse.

Not only will that not work, but it would do real harm to valuable speech that relies on anonymity. From the article:

Unfortunately, some voices can be so profoundly silenced by a pierced veil of anonymity that they won’t be around to protest unannounced updates. For instance, activists and journalists in countries where Twitter is forbidden use Tor to circumvent the censorship technology that blocks the site, and to do so without being traceable by the national internet service providers and phone network operators. Changes that make it harder to use Twitter and Tor in combination end up doing real harm to some of the speech that is most marginalized.

The fact that we can’t tell for sure whether Twitter has targeted this speech intentionally raises more issues about the transparency we need to see in online algorithms. But even if this is an unintentional side-effect of a different policy, it’s important to recognize that hindering anonymous speech in any case comes at a great cost.