The Platform


Sending a thumbs-up emoji might just cost you money.

Beware using the casual thumbs-up emoji: a landmark ruling suggests it can seal a deal. A court in Saskatchewan, Canada has found that using a thumbs-up emoji in electronic communications, including on platforms like WhatsApp or in emails, can be tantamount to formally accepting a contract.

The blend of contract law with the dawning age of technology is nothing short of riveting. Notably, the King’s Bench in Saskatchewan, through the case of South West Terminal Ltd. v. Achter Land & Cattle Ltd., underscored the evolving digital vocabulary. The court recognized a “new reality in Canadian society,” where digital expressions like thumbs, hearts, and smileys are no longer mere frivolities. The legal world, the court posited, must calibrate itself to these nuanced modes of communication.

At the core of this case was a conflict over a Flax Contract. This involved delivering 87 metric tons of flax for $669.26 per ton, in late November 2021. The players? A grain and crop inputs company and a farming company. Their communication, peppered with emails and text messages, included the now-controversial thumbs-up emoji. The backdrop painted by the judge was of Chris Achter and Kent Mickleborough’s enduring business association. Historical exchanges had Achter affirming contracts with succinct replies like “looks good,” “ok,” or “yup.”

For Judge T.J. Keene, these past communications created context. Both parties understood such brief affirmations as sealing the deal, not just acknowledging its receipt. Every contract saw Chris Achter delivering grain as agreed and being compensated in kind. The upshot? Judge Keene recognized a valid contract between the parties, singling out Chris Achter’s non-delivery as a breach. Damages? A cool $61,000.

Yes, the court conceded, an emoji isn’t your typical John Hancock. But given the narrative, it sufficed to authenticate two signature essentials: identification (it was from Chris Achter’s number) and explicit consent to the terms. As Judge Keene reflected, “I am satisfied on the balance of probabilities that Chris okayed or approved the Contract just like he had done before, except this time he used a ‘thumbs-up’ emoji. In my opinion, when considering all of the circumstances, that meant approval of the flax contract and not simply that he had received the contract and was going to think about it.” The judge further elaborated that any informed onlooker, privy to their history, would discern a mutual understanding, akin to previous dealings.

In solidifying his stance, Judge Keene pointed to’s thumbs-up definition: a digital nod of approval, especially in Western cultures. The judge candidly voiced skepticism about the source’s gravitas but felt it echoed his own layman observations, even admitting a personal tech learning curve.

However, one must tread with caution. The ruling leans heavily on this case’s unique contextual fabric, with calls and exchanges spotlighting the emoji as an affirmative symbol. So, while it’s intriguing to see the law’s malleability in our tech-driven era, one size might not fit all.

Emojis, once dismissed as youthful indulgences, are now pivotal in digital discourse. As they rise in stature, so must legal interpretation. While Canada’s relative cultural cohesion might accommodate such nuances, multifaceted nations like India, teeming with dialects and cultural variances, might grapple with this seamless integration. If emojis become contractual staples, will our legal documents start mirroring vibrant teenage chat logs? Will courts wade through emojis, interpreting winks, handshakes, and more?

This case is reminiscent of a quintessential law school debate topic. It underscores the need for a robust jurisprudential framework for such verdicts. As tech redefines our conversational landscape, the law must walk the tightrope: welcoming innovation while safeguarding the pillars of clarity and legal certainty.

Tejaswini Kaushal is studying law at the Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, in Lucknow, India. She is keenly interested in international, corporate, tech, and intellectual property law. With a penchant for conducting in-depth analyses and critically scrutinizing complex legal issues, she has a track record of publishing well-received content on recognized websites, aiming to make a positive impact on society through her work.