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As Emojis catch fire in China, creators seek IP protection

By Cheng Yu | China Daily | Updated: 2018-10-06 09:20
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Emojis, the latest form of intellectual property in China, are turning out to be a money-spinner and also an IP worth further protection in China.

Consider Rumi, a panda-like emoji, which has been downloaded on social media more than 340 million times, representing more than a quarter of China's entire population.

Rumi is among millions of emojis that have been created in China, as design companies and groups of artists sprout up across the country like mushrooms. Analysts say the screen symbols have become a burgeoning IP business, albeit one that needs further development and protection to maximize its value.

Emojis, which have evolved from character-based emoticons, are part and parcel of a great many messages exchanged by users of instant message apps, social media, email and the like.

More and more users, especially the young, love to use emojis because they help spice up their messages with slick meanings, moods or states of mind that are best expressed quickly, not in words, but through interesting or funny images.

Not only do they use, they also tip. China's largest social media platform WeChat told China Daily that more than 6.9 million users tipped emoji artists in 2017, parting with nearly 14 million yuan ($2 million) in all, up 13 percent year-on-year.

The return can be handsome. Zhang Xuchen, 39, a part-time emoji creator from Tianjin, said that he earned a decent income in the tens of thousands of yuan annually simply through tipping from customers, which supplements his job as a forklift truck driver.

In addition to tipping, companies are joining this IP industry chain and will authorize the emoji to an array of enterprises that use the creative content in themed dolls, cosmetics, accessories, jewelry, fashion, bank cards and other forms of merchandise.

StarMoly, developer of Rumi, has developed IPs itself including smartphone shells, coin purses and books. These IP products alone generated a total of 500,000 yuan within four months by the end of last year.

"Driven by the wide use of social media in nearly every corner in China, emojis are undoubtedly a promising IP," said Lin Dongdong, president of StarMoly.

StarMoly, founded in 2016, is a IP developer that owns more than 30 emoji IPs including Moer the raccoon, Quby the baby, Waang the egg and Xiao the cat. Its emojis have been downloaded more than 1.4 billion times.

Unlike traditional IPs, the company's emojis will change their costumes and status according to different situations, which brings the digital-based images alive.

StarMoly has also cooperated with an array of companies to develop its IPs. It has authorized its emojis to the Shape of Water, an Oscar-winning film, to use them in domestic publicity. Microsoft Corp has also used its emoji to make gifts for the Lunar New Year.

"To protect our IPs, we are very cautious when choosing our partners. We only choose those well-known and high-quality brands including Lay's, Microsoft, Discovery and Taobao to make sure that our IPs are protected," Lin said.

Lin noted that there are indeed many cases of abuse and piracy in the emoji and its related sectors in China, which needs to be improved.

"Emojis are very likely to be infringed because most of them are in digital forms, which are very easy to be copied and used again," said Cheng Yanbo, an independent gaming and pan-entertainment analyst.

"Besides, it is a brand-new and wild area that lacks supervision," he said.

A case in point, he said, is the facepalm emoji, one of the country's most widespread characters. It was recently registered as a trademark by a clothing maker from Zhejiang province instead of the emoji's creator, Wechat.

"To protect these emoji IPs, related rules and regulations are needed to protect the IP rights of both creators and companies," he said, adding that education on the subject should be expected to catch up.

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