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Flirtmoji designer admits some vulva emoji were inadvertently plagiarized

'The middle left was pure-vagina-plagiarism homage'

Erin Tobey

A week ago, The Verge published an article about vulva emojis. The story featured a series of diverse, body-positive vulva icons developed by Flirtmoji; it also included an interview with the designers who drew them. Unfortunately, The Verge has learned that some of the designs presented in the story weren't original. They were actually plagiarized from another artist's work, without her knowledge.

Erin Tobey is a multimedia artist and musician based in Indiana. She produced undeniably similar designs years before Flirtmoji launched its vulva emoji — and that isn't hard to prove. Tobey's drawings were part of a 2013 Kickstarter campaign, and they were featured in a BuzzFeed article last year. So, when a friend posted The Verge's story on Facebook, she recognized them right away. The drawings below are Tobey's, while the vector-based icons are Flirtmoji's:

Many of the designs "are pretty literally 'quoted' from my work," Tobey told The Verge in an instant message exchange. In fact, one of the reasons Tobey was able to identify the art is because one of the vulvas that Flirtmoji produced is a reproduction of Tobey's own anatomy. "I took a photo of my own and illustrated it," she says. Because that picture isn't available online, Flirtmoji's designers couldn't have worked off the original.

"Many of the designs are pretty literally 'quoted' from my work."

Finding her art reproduced in this way is irritating, Tobey says — especially given the way Flirtmoji designer Jeremy Yingling discussed his artistic process in his interview with The Verge. "Millions of pictures of genitals are available online — and what a bizarre and beautiful concept that is," he told The Verge last week. "So, throughout this project, we were harvesting that however possible. [There were] certainly a lot of Google image searches."

Yingling admits some of the emoji were plagiarized, albeit inadvertently. "There was certainly no straight-up tracing," Yingling said in an email — but he did draw inspiration from some of Tobey's designs. "I'll admit that the one in the middle left was pure-vagina-plagiarism homage." This morning in a phone call, Yingling apologized for the similarity between the drawings. "I don't feel good about it."

In an email to Tobey that Yingling shared with The Verge, the Flirtmoji designer explained his process further:

The bottom yellow one and the top right one look very, very similar to two of our vagina emojis. I see the resemblance, down to some of the little details in the curves. I'm obviously absolutely uncomfortable with those similarities and understand it looks like malicious theft of art.

However, they're absolutely not traced. I work by looking at my mood board (and apparently at your vaginas) and doodling in my sketchbook. I scanned that sketchbook back in and refined it along with dozens of other half-conceived vaginas. I swapped clits, folds, played endlessly with strokes and colors. There are like, 100 vaginas on one document. In some part of this back and forth process, I lost any concept of attribution or the original source of those particular lines.

Again, the end result comparison of those two vaginas is problematic for me. They look plagiarized. I suppose by some definition they are. I feel terrible and embarrassed. I'm sorry. These emoji have received an excellent response from the media and public and I was feeling very proud of the time I spent researching, investigating, doodling, and looking to artists like you for inspiration.

As for the other four vaginas you paired, I don't see the similarity. I certainly understand your suspicion, but I don't see it in these. Perhaps there's only so many ways to draw vaginas.

"We too see the plagiarism and we're calling it that word."

Yingling also noted that Flirtmoji isn't selling the package of five vulva emojis they have released so far, and therefore haven't profited from the designs. (The startup does sell other emoji packages, however, so articles that covered them may have helped them obtain more users.) Then, Yingling told Tobey that he wanted to resolve the issue by either removing the art, changing it, or attributing two of the icons to her. "We too see the plagiarism and we're calling it that word," he said in a second email to Tobey.

(Erin Tobey)

Tobey understands how sorting out where an artist's inspiration comes from might get complicated, she told Yingling in response. But she was displeased with the way he described his design process last week. It was "not truthful," she said. Tobey also thinks that at least five of the emoji are based off her work — not two. From her email to Yingling, which she shared with The Verge:

My main beef is that, in your interview on The Verge, your thoughts on "inspiration" came across as disingenuous when I see at least 5 of the [15] designs coming pretty directly from my work. I appreciate, and totally agree with, your feelings about celebrating asymmetrical bodies. The description of your process in seeking these out also feels disingenuous given the above.

Flirtmoji now plans to remove one of the vulva emoji from its site. "We're definitely going to swap out the one that in our opinion is plagiarism, but not without a blog post, public apology to Erin, etc," Yingling told The Verge in an email.The two parties are still talking about potential solutions. On the phone, Yingling said that he wanted to get the word out about Tobey's art. "The only thing we would say is go look at Erin's work — it's phenomenal."

You can find more information about Tobey's art on her website. Her vulva designs were created in collaboration with Debby Herbenick and Vanessa Schick.

Update 12:15PM ET: Flirtmoji's designers have published a blog post that reveals more of their thoughts on this issue. In it, they say that if Tobey wants the emoji to be taken down, they will do just that.


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