Posted on March 29, 2021

She Brought Diverse Skin Tones Emoji to the iPhone. Now She’s Suing Apple.

Reed Albergotti, Washington Post, March 10, 2021

For Katrina Parrott, being invited to present her idea to Apple at its campus in Cupertino, Calif., felt like a dream. Less than a year earlier, she had been laid off from her job with NASA in Texas. Now, she was discussing partnering with the iPhone maker on an idea she had pioneered: emoji with different skin-tone options.

It was 2013, and the tiny digital drawings — smiley faces and thumbs-up icons sent over text message — depicted people in only one skin tone. Parrott, who is Black, said her oldest daughter came home from college one day and lamented that she couldn’t express herself through emoji with skin tones that matched her own.


Parrott embraced the idea and in six months built and launched iDiversicons, an iPhone app that allowed users to copy and paste emoji with five distinct skin tones into their messages. At the time, creators of iPhone apps were becoming millionaires overnight, and Parrott saw an opportunity to build momentum. She began pumping her savings into the app’s growth.

According to Parrott, though, her early success turned to heartbreak when Apple and other technology companies incorporated skin tone options into their operating systems, making her app obsolete and leaving her $200,000 in the hole.

Parrott is now suing Apple for copyright infringement in a case that highlights the lopsided power dynamic on mobile app stores, where app creators are easily copied and pushed aside by technology giants. Todd Patterson, an intellectual property lawyer in Texas who is representing Parrott, said the case is about simple values. “The woman who was trying to improve inclusion gets excluded,” he said.

Apple spokeswoman Jacqueline Roy declined to comment, other than to point to the company’s court filings, in which Apple says Parrott has no claim to the copyright of skin tone emoji. In court, Apple’s lawyers have argued that “copyright does not protect the idea of applying five different skin tones to emoji because ideas are not copyrightable.” Apple said in the court filing that it developed diverse skin tone emoji independently and did not copy her work.


But Parrott’s story, told through interviews as well as emails and documents viewed by The Washington Post, bumps up against Apple’s effort to market itself as an agent of change for systemic racial inequity in corporate America. Apple announced a $100 million racial justice and equity initiative in January that aims in part to help Black entrepreneurs with start-up boot camps and other opportunities. As part of the initiative, which costs one one-thousandth of what Apple earned in revenue last quarter, the company says it is funding schools such as one in Detroit’s urban center that offers free iPhone coding classes.

The effort is aimed at stopping the “gross injustices and institutional barriers” preventing communities of color from pursuing the “American Dream,” Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, said in a news release announcing the initiative.

It’s surprising that Parrott’s role in the widespread adoption of skin tones for emoji isn’t more well known, said Jennifer 8. Lee, a vice chairman of the emoji subcommittee of Unicode Consortium, the body that approves and standardizes emoji so they can be sent among users with any device or operating system, and in any language. “If she had been a White male from Stanford or MIT in her mid 20s, it’s more likely her company would have been acquired by Apple,” said Lee, who featured Parrott in her documentary, “The Emoji Story.”

Apple remains overwhelmingly White and Asian. According to a form posted on its website, it had one Black executive out of 123 top executives in 2018. And of the 10,000 first- and mid-level managers at the company, fewer than 300 were Black. It hasn’t released data on the diversity of its employee base for more than two years.


Intellectual property lawyer Gerald DePardo, a partner at McCormick, Paulding and Huber, said Parrott’s lawsuit falls into the category of a tough case to win in part because Apple’s emoji and Parrott’s do not appear to be identical. The fact that she came up with the idea first is not enough.


Emoji were created in the late 1990s in Japan and were added to iPhones in 2008, the year after the iPhone was introduced. But it wasn’t until 2015, with the release of iOS 8.3, that Apple added the option to change the skin tones of the all-White characters, prompted by changes Parrott pushed through at Unicode. Google, which operates the Android system for smartphones, introduced Unicode skin-tone standards in 2016. Unicode’s members include all of the major tech companies, including Apple, Google and Microsoft, which help steer decision-making there.


In 2013, the iPhone was six years old and emoji were exploding in popularity as a communication tool. When her daughter said it would be nice to be able to express herself with emoji that looked like her, Parrott said she asked, “What’s an emoji?”

Parrott, who works in aerospace logistics, decided there should be an app for that. She hired a coder and set out to create her app, using five skin tones that she thought allowed for enough diversity to represent any ethnic background.

Six months later, in October, iDiversicons was available for download in the App Store. A few more than 300 emoji were in the first app, all registered with the U.S. Copyright Office. Parrott also applied for three patents for the idea.

The number of downloads was modest, but Parrott thought that it was a good start and that with more promotion, it could turn into a business. At 99 cents a pop, minus Apple’s 30 percent cut, Parrott’s take topped out at about $1,000 a month, she says.

But the app had been written up in several online publications and Parrott thought that greater success was right around the corner.


In February 2015, Apple announced its new, diverse emoji and made the national news. Now, anyone who wanted more diverse options could simply hit a button on the keyboard, making Parrott’s iDiversicons app unnecessary.

Parrott said she was disappointed in how they looked. One thing she had stressed at the Unicode meetings and to Apple is that tech companies shouldn’t just change the skin color of emoji. They should also change the emoji themselves to reflect the difference in ethnicities. For instance, she said, an emoji depicting a Black person should have different hair as well.

Parrott got the sinking feeling that Apple’s new diverse emoji would also eat into downloads for her app, which, despite media coverage, still hadn’t grown significantly in downloads. Out $200,000 in expenses on her app and travel associated with the Unicode meetings, Parrott took a job in Seattle working for Boeing. {snip}