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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  1.  
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    Josh in CharlotteNC (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 7:23am

    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.

     

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    Mike C. (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 7:57am

    I vote for...

    Who wants to die first so that legal precedent can be established on this matter?

    Is it wrong for me to wish that certain members of the MAFIAA take these bold first steps for us???

    /nice guy
    //no, really... :-)

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 8:44am

    If you've bought or otherwise acquired DRM-free copies of miscellaneous digital content, and placed them onto a variety of storage devices, can you bequeath the devices to your heirs?

     

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    Jon, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 8:52am

    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...

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 8:52am

    I can only see this Copyright mess getting messier as time goes forward and a huge new lawsuit industry emerges as copyright increasingly slams against inheritance issues.

     

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    Zakida Paul (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 8:56am

    I leave my HDD with all my files on it to my heirs, that's what happens.

     

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    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 8:56am

    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.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:02am

    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.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:03am

    Re:

    I meant "With DRM-free formats, transferability issues all but disappears", obvisously.

     

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    SujaOfJauhnral (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:05am

    Re: Don't do that

    I think you just nailed why most people pirate.

     

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    DogBreath, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:16am

    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.”

     

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    Mike42 (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:17am

    This makes the little plastic disks more attractive to me.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:23am

    "legal precedent"

    All these laws and arguing for what people consider their rights already are so exhausting.

    Piracy is so much easier.

     

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    Ninja (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:30am

    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 ;)

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:35am

    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.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:38am

    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.

     

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    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:39am

    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.

     

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    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:43am

    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.

     

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    Ninja (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:50am

    Re: Re:

    Actually, he has a point. A full scale DRM system would allow for easier rights management you could log in and digitally transfer your rights to another person. I do agree with you that simply copying the content should suffice.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 9:54am

    So... for the sake of the children, OUR children, we need to pirate our digital content! We are protecting the children pirating and storing content! Protecting their inheritance!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 10:07am

    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.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 10:08am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    (sorry for the poor writing)

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 10:13am

    Re:

    It's so true it hurts that we can't count on media corporations to preserve (or in TFA's case place hurdles) on our cultural inheritage preservation.

     

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    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 10:21am

    Re: Re: Re: 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.

     

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    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 10:23am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Maybe so, but then a one-step operation (copy the file) turns into, at best, a two-step operation (transfer the rights and copy the file) that involves a trip on the internet.

    It seems to me that the process has been made more difficult that way, not easier.

     

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    Bengie, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 10:49am

    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.

     

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    DogBreath, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 11:05am

    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.

     

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    Atkray (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 11:29am

    Re:

    "then the only thing that matters is how they divy up the files."

    Seed to a 1.5 ratio or you get nothing?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 11:37am

    Re:

    It is imperative to buy the physical product and convert it to 1's and 0's yourself in order to actually own it and be able to bequeath it as you wish.

     

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    Rikuo (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 11:39am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 11:39am

    Re:

    That is the only way some IP, read culture, is propagated into the future.

     

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    DogBreath, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 11:44am

    Re: Re:

    Nothing, or a "Boot to the Head".

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 11:58am

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

    That is a pretty conservative estimate. Buy a couple albums a week and you'll surpass this. Buy games and movies, and you can crank that way up.

     

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    btr1701 (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 12:14pm

    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.

     

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    gorehound (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 12:22pm

    " 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.

     

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    Ed C., Aug 30th, 2012 @ 12:42pm

    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.

     

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    John Fenderson (profile), Aug 30th, 2012 @ 1:02pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: 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

     

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    MrWilson, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 1:06pm

    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.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 1:23pm

    This is just one of the many reasons that every time I purchase a music file I record it and save to an external hard drive in the format of my choice. Simple and easy fix for DRM, and no one has to know.Shhhh!

     

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    Sarah Kolb, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 1:45pm

    Yikes

    I hadn't considered that I couldn't pass on my digital library to my children. I collect physical copies of books just because I prefer feeling them in my hands and I love seeing them on my shelves -- guess I've been on the right track with that!

     

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    Loki, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 2:28pm

    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).

     

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    Loki, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 2:34pm

    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.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 6:32pm

    All that digital goodness you have purchased after you die? But I thought the stores are all closed!

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 7:06pm

    Re:

    If it contains files with DRM, you may just leave useless bits to them.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 7:20pm

    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?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 7:22pm

    Treacherous Computing

    This business of your digital files being yanked away when you die is an example of treacherous computing. Richard Stallman (RMS) has been warning about this for many years. Heed the wise words of RMS.

     

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    Rekrul, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 8:11pm

    Re: 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...

     

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    Rekrul, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 8:17pm

    Re: 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.

     

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    DogBreath, Aug 30th, 2012 @ 10:38pm

    Re: Re: 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.

     

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    Anonymous Cowherd, Aug 31st, 2012 @ 12:52am

    At least most people can comfort themselves with the probability that the platforms these "purchases" are dependent on will shut down before they die, thus making the point moot.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  51.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 31st, 2012 @ 1:41am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: 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.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  52.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 31st, 2012 @ 1:49am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Yes, my writing was confused I admit :D. John & Rikuo nicely clarified it. My focus was the inheritance general use case of whether the heir would need any kind of ownership proof if if inherited a drive full of media-file at all under current legal system.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  53.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 31st, 2012 @ 1:55am

    Re: Re: Yikes

    And what an awfully nice censorship tool this is !

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  54.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Aug 31st, 2012 @ 3:56am

    Re:

    exactly, I simply stay away from anything that tries to misrepresent long term rental as a sale.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  55.  
    icon
    Seegras (profile), Sep 3rd, 2012 @ 6:20am

    Inheritance does not work for copyright, known since 1841

    In 1841, some people realized that "inheritance" is a terrible idea where copyright is concerned.
    http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Copyright_Law_%28Macaulay%29
    You've been warned.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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