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

from the the-joys-of-the-digital-transition dept

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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Comments on “What Happens To All That Digital Goodness You Have Purchased After You Die?”

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56 Comments
Josh in CharlotteNC (profile) says:

Inequality

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.

That sums up the inequality of copyright and how far it has gone from its original intent. There is no question about one’s heirs inheriting the monopoly privileges over a work, but the people who purchased the use of that work cannot pass that use on to their heirs.

MrWilson says:

Re: Inequality

This is the irony. Monopoly holders complain that digital technology has made piracy an issue, but they’ve also situated themselves to have their cake and eat it too. They want the same price for digital content that costs less to copy and distribute and they want (and try to achieve) more restrictions on usage despite the digital formats making more freedom possible.

Jon (user link) says:

If you buy DRM-free files, and your heirs have access to the storage devices, then the only thing that matters is how they divy up the files.

Is anyone saying that if you bequeath your hard disk to someone, they are legally required to format it?

Just give all the heirs a copy and call it good.

I mean, someone died, give the heirs some slack, and at the same time reduce the chance of any infighting over who gets what.

Better society and whatnot…

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Don't do that

This issue is why I won’t “purchase” music unless I can get it as (or convert it to) a standard DRM-free audio file.

Not just the issue of bequeathing my music collection, but also the issue of being tied to any particular device, the ability to copy the files between systems easily, the ability to have backups, and the ability to listen to my music without having to ask permission from some central authority.

I do stream movies, but movies are different because there are very few I’ll watch more than once anyway.

Anonymous Coward says:

The equation can be simplified to:
DRM = less value lease, not very far from streaming abilities.

With DRM free formats, transferability all but disappears.

Another element showing how much different digital vs. actual material property is in nature, for all the lobbying to make everyone believe otherwise.

DogBreath says:

All part of the "artificial" plan

Along with artificial scarcity in this digital age, comes immediate and complete degradation (artificial morbidity) of digital data, even though the product hasn’t lost any of it’s original 1’s or 0’s.

Sure, you bought a “license”, but how come that “license” will more than likely cost the same or more as a physical product, which you can pass down to your heirs? The correct answers are: “We demand more money for something you already in reality own”, and: “That is the way we do it and we will never change”.

Meet the new Gatekeepers, same as the old Gatekeepers.

?The Gatekeepers were created by copyright. They lobbied. They de-evolved. They look and feel human. Some are programmed to think they are human. There are many DRM encumbered files to sell over and over again. And they have a plan.?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

This just makes DRM look like an obnoxious removing value for everyone involved: costly, time-limited, cost-incurring for the seller, usage-limiting, etc…

Proposal for a law to formally state, if needed:
– Possession of a media file on any medium means you own it, no additional proof needed. Just as any physical media.
– DRM-laden media either is only a low-value temporary license. Suppliers should not be allowed to market and advertise it as a “sale” that it is not.

Though I believe everyone would be better off outlawing DRM altogether.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Possession of a media file on any medium means you own it, no additional proof needed. Just as any physical media.

Actually, that’s not exactly true of physical media (or physical anything else).

Suppliers should not be allowed to market and advertise it as a “sale” that it is not.

A million times this.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Actually, that’s not exactly true of physical media (or physical anything else).”

Kindly ask to elaborate (or link if it makes it easier) a bit in what sort of restrictions/cases that doesn’t apply ?
I had in mind e.g. a CD or a DVD at home, and small physical objects, it is assumed they are yours if you havethese in your home, car, bag, etc hands… you don’t have to keep receipts for them or need any other proof.

I understood the reason for it was that any other system would be completely nightmarish to enforce. E.g. endless disputes between people.

Just applying the same to e.g.g a hard-drive containing files. They are assumed yours just because the media-rive is yours. The burden of proof of otherwise can never be yours.

Guenuinly interested in a better understand of the state of the law on something so basic about property.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

There is a presumption of ownership, but physical possession is not actually proof of ownership.

For example, if a thief steals your stereo and you spot him carrying it down the street and call the cops, the cops will not assume that the thief owns it merely because he is in possession of it. They will demand some kind of evidence of ownership.

Rikuo (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Umm…something wrong here. I thought the legal system was built on the premise of innocent until proven guilty. Since you’re the one accusing the other guy of stealing the stereo, wouldn’t the burden be on you to prove him guilty? If you accuse him and have no paperwork of any kind to show that you owned that stereo, all the other guy has to do is sit back and wait for the judge to throw the case out for lack of evidence.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Yes, it’s not a great example. I need to think of one that doesn’t involve criminality so I can exclude that complication.

In any case, there are two distinct legal concepts here: possession and ownership. Possession implies, but does not prove, ownership.

An interesting overview can be found here: http://answers.google.com/answers/threadview?id=496059

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

> Possession of a media file on any medium
> means you own it, no additional proof needed.
> Just as any physical media.

You seem to be confused. Possession of physical items is not proof of ownership.

If that were the case, then the guy who breaks into my house and steals my TV could then prove he owns it merely because he now possesses it.

Ninja (profile) says:

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?”

I’m sure our regular critics will die out of pure altruism towards the poor starving artists. As for me I’m trying to avoid DRM/online locked up content as much as possible. And in the end, even if it’s DRMed we can always thank the pirates to pass culture and content to our youngsters.

Ahoy ๐Ÿ˜‰

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s a long story to say that they don’t understand the difference between the physical delivery device and the content.

If the music was all on CD, it would be without question, because the rights are attached in many ways to the physical product. It’s easy to see and to pass on.

Digital? Well, for me, it’s probably a non-issue, because the computer on which they are located, or the MP3 player they are on would be part of heritage passed on, and as such, the ownership (or at least control) would pass with them. However, the ability to keep the itunes account active would depend on a future user keeping the existing account going. Otherwise, it would be something frozen in amber, a device that you cannot add music to without first trashing what was already on it.

The funny part is that with a full on DRM system, it would actually be easier to determine the control of a single copy, and allow that control to be sold, transfered, or yes, inherited. But in the wild, open, we don’t track anything world you guys wanted, you end up facing these problems.

Good luck with it. I’ll be dead and not really worried when it comes my turn to deal with this issue.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The funny part is that with a full on DRM system, it would actually be easier to determine the control of a single copy, and allow that control to be sold, transfered, or yes, inherited. But in the wild, open, we don’t track anything world you guys wanted, you end up facing these problems.

Wait, are you arguing that DRM makes the transferability issue easier? Without DRM, transferring is simply a file copy operation. It can’t get any easier than that.

Ed C. says:

Re: Re:

You do realize that for such a DRM system to work:

A: there would have to be a compatible software or device capable of reading the DRM encoded file
B: the DRM registry would have to exist for the ownership to be confirmed.
C: you wouldn’t be able to transfer the file if the DRM provider forbids it.

If any of the above is not available or permitted, you can NOT transfer a DRM encumbered file! Since your head is clearly too far up your ass to see daylight anymore, books and any other physical property don’t require ANY of that to confirm or transfer ownership. The same goes for any digital file without DRM. The physical medium it’s encoded on can be given to someone else to use, just as a book or any other physical property.

Bengie says:

New Bill

We need a “right” that states any one time purchase for unlimited lifetime access to an application or content, requires that the purchaser has unrestricted access to DRM free version of said application or content.

It is the customer’s right that they have access to said content in an off-line way that allows them to create back-ups and access the content in the case the distributor no longer exists.

DogBreath says:

Time will fix this problem... by creating a new one

This will only last until the government figures out how much lost revenue (inheritance taxes) it could be making by allowing intangible digital content to be passed down to heirs.

Death and taxes. The only two sure things that will be brought together again and again.

Sons and daughters, a tax on both your houses.

gorehound (profile) says:

” 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.?

Not me as I own a personal Library of around 1500 books and includes 303 vintage science fiction pulp magazines.I do not own one ebook nor will I ever own an ebook.
http://www.bigmeathammer.com/gallery.htm Just some of the goodies I own.I actually was at the Portland,ME Pub Library today and spoke to Jim at the Reference Desk about Donating all of my Pulps to the Library in my Will providing the Collection is maintained and kept whole with no pieces ever being sold off.

Loki says:

Re: Yikes

I still keep a handful of physical books and CDs (and most of my DVD until I can get them all transferred to digital) that I simply don’t want to give up physical copies of, but most of my books and music have long since been transferred over to digital format. The biggest reason is, having moved 11 times in the last 8 years, packing/unpacking and transporting 2,000 plus CDs, 1,100 plus books, and 800 plus movies was just too much of a physical hassle (not to mention the ease of use being a strong secondary factor).

All of my digital content is 100% DRM-free MP3 content. I have no worries about the ability to pass them on (it’s a simple matter of just someone taking possession of the external hard drive they are on), nor to I have to worry about loss of content (unlike physical content when I once lost a few hundred cassettes and several dozen books in a flood) because I keep a detailed list of what I own, so if something becomes corrupted or damaged I can just redownload it again (unlike having to purchase Metallica’s Master of Puppets album four times because I had two cassette tapes eaten and one CD broken).

Loki says:

As the report points out, some people can spend as much as $360 a year on digital content.

who did this report, quasi-MPAA/RIAA supporters? I spend about $350 a year on digital content, and if I’m not at the bottom of my social circle for digital consumption (simply because I’m the only one still with small kids, which limits the amount I have to spend) I’m pretty damn close. I personally know a couple people who currently spend over a grand a month on their digital catalogs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Premium Bonds

Can it be suggested follow the rules for Permium Bonds?

Permium Bonds are non-transferable. The owner’s children can’t inherit from him, but the bonds can go through special claim to change back to money, so the children can inherit the value of the bonds.

Maybe people can suggest to your representatives to setup the law to require that any business who do digitial content business with non-tranferable clause must setup machnism to process such claims?

Rekrul says:

Time will fix this problem... by creating a new one

This will only last until the government figures out how much lost revenue (inheritance taxes) it could be making by allowing intangible digital content to be passed down to heirs.

Don’t count on it. How much lost revenue is there in not legalizing and taxing prostitution and drugs? How much lost revenue is there in not limiting copyrights to ten years and then charging a yearly fee for each work to be renewed?

If they were to limit copyright to ten years and then charge an ever increasing fee for copyright renewal each year, they’d kill two birds with one stone. Many works would become public domain, and the government would have a ton of extra money from all the corporations paying an increasing yearly renewal fee. Start at $1 and double it each year, such fees to be applied to all media retroactively or they become public domain. With such a system, you could erase the national debt in under a decade…

Rekrul says:

Yikes

I hadn’t considered that I couldn’t pass on my digital library to my children.

It’s actually worse than that. If the company that controls the DRM decides that you have done something wrong they can take away the digital files that you supposedly bought, by shutting down your account and/or deleting the files.

Look up the article about how Valve software deactivated one person’s Steam account, and with it, all the games that he “bought” just because he asked what someone would pay for a Steam account full of games.

Or the article about how Amazon deleted some George Orwell ebooks from people’s Kindles after they supposedly “bought” them.

DogBreath says:

Time will fix this problem... by creating a new one

How much lost revenue is there in not legalizing and taxing prostitution and drugs?

I think they’ve discovered it’s more profitable to fine and lock up those doing same, while taxing the populous to pay for it, regardless of who or what we vote for. The government knows if it was legalized, corporations would take over (keeping the lions share of the profit while paying the workers little), and everyone else knows how well corporations succeed in finding every loophole to pay as little tax as possible. Many times, loopholes they helped create.

I do like your copyright idea… if only it were possible to go back to the old “you must renew it, or you lose it” way of things. It seems too late as this government along with many others, are already too deep into the back pocket of big business, and the only way to untangle it at this time would be to start fresh.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re:

Thanks John & Rikuo to clarify the concepts I so poorly expressed.

Is there any reason to believe media files on a hard drive would/should be treated differently ?

How would that be valued at all in case of inheritance ? I wouldn’t expect the heir need to be required to prove anything to anyone that he owns the media files, if he possesses or owns the drive they are hosted on.

If he did, yt would be a pretty awful situation.

To the point someone raise of a nice digital rights register to formalize handover, it just seems an unneeded administrative burden. And the premise it relies on that such a neutral clean-cut rights register could even come to exist is illusory. Who would be maintaining such a beast ? Would it be a wolrdwide register ? I can’t see the value when it comes to just media consumers, that’d be a huge waste and an invasion of privacy. Who’s business is it that you own a book’s copy ? What a dangerous censorship tool…

I understand the case of inheritage handing-over content from file-lockers (or any DRM-managed hosting vendor) would be the limit to address as pointed out in the article. But it seems unnecessarily complex to try and address it at media-file level.

Pyewacket says:

Time will fix this problem... by creating a new one

Umm, no, they do not make money on that deal. They lose a ton of money due to the cost of prosecution and incarceration. It costs between $32k and $168k per year to keep one prisoner incarcerated, to the tune of billions of dollars per year. A study was done in 2010 across 40 states, and they found that these 40 states were spending in total $39 BILLION dollars to keep folks in prison – most of them non-violent drug offenders – every single year.

That’s not even counting costs of prosecution, nor the costs society ends up bearing for care and education of families of prisoners, nor costs related to rehab after prison release. Many former prisoners who were previously gainfully employed will be unable to obtain employment with a criminal record – so when we as a society incarcerate someone, and with the emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation, we are guaranteeing ongoing expense for each prisoner and their family virtually in perpetuity.

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