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What Happens To All That Digital Goodness You Have Purchased After You Die?

Originally Published on Techdirt.

With the proliferation of digitally distributed content, the question of ownership is always looming overhead. Part of that question is what happens to it all after you die. In the physical realm, any books, movies, games and music you purchase throughout your life can be left to your children and other heirs. Things aren’t so simple for ebooks and iTunes files that you may have bought.
Tex D’urt (I see what you did there) sent in this analysis by the Wall Street Journal on the question of who, if anyone, can inherit your digital library.

Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.

And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”

As the report points out, some people can spend as much as $360 a year on digital content. As digital content becomes more wide spread and accepted, that amount could increase quite a bit over the years. But what happens to all that potential 10’s of thousands of dollars worth of content when the account holder dies? That is where terms of use statements from Apple and Amazon, among others, makes things complicated.

Apple (US:AAPL) and Amazon.com (US:AMZN) grant “nontransferable” rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the “White Album” to your son and “Abbey Road” to your daughter.

According to Amazon’s terms of use, “You do not acquire any ownership rights in the software or music content.” Apple limits the use of digital files to Apple devices used by the account holder.

It is this non-transferability of the content that is the stickler. If you cannot transfer your digital files to another person then you cannot technically bequeath them to an heir. However, you can still leave your entire account to someone else, but even that might hit some issues if the terms of service don’t allow it. Steam is one example of a service that does not allow for the transfer of accounts, even in whole. Valve is willing to kill an account, swallowing up all money spent on it rather than letting someone other than the original owner getting a hold of it.

Digital distribution is still young and there have not been any real challenges to this sort of situation. The closest ruling I am aware of that might possibly allow such a transfer is the EU Court ruling declaring that software, which includes a non-transferability clause in its license, can still be resold. So while such a ruling does not answer this specific legal question, it could work as a convincing precedent when it does come up. However, that ruling only holds bearing in the EU. Which means rulings such as the Vernor vs Autodesk ruling, which denies such first sale rights to US citizens, could prevent such transfers.

Of course the question of transferability would be moot if people would not buy anything encumbered by DRM or which was tied directly to an account. With DRM-free files, there are fewer issues of who you can bequeath files to as there are no accounts that need to be dealt with. However, there might still be some copyright questions on whether such files can still be legally transferable even if they are technically and easily transferable. Yet, I don’t see many creators who release their works in DRM-free form raising much of a stink about it, although their estates might.

One question not raised in the WSJ piece is one we have talked about in the past when such services go belly up. Is it really going to matter that your files are not transferable when Apple or Amazon close up shop and banish all your purchased content to the nether world of digital services? That is a more pressing question. While you may live to a ripe old age, the services and technologies you use typically have a far shorter shelf life. What good would it be to leave obsolete files and devices to your children?

I guess the final question that needs to be asked here is this, “Who wants to die first so that legal precedent can be established on this matter?”

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