The rabbit hole of digital ownership


My friend Sean Bawden read this article the other day and posed this question to me: what happens to your iTunes library when you die?

I have written before about digital assets (here and here). Most of that information, however, is about social networking and other “sites” – blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, even eBay and PayPal. Digital items are quite another matter, as these are things that we have paid for and that most people expect to be able to pass on, much as we would pass on a book or a record.

Even if you have access to the digital music files, for example because you have access to the deceased’s computer, you may not have the legal right to use them because the use licence was with the deceased, and cannot necessarily be passed on to you. As the MarketWatch article notes, owning songs on iTunes, or books on a Kindle or Kobo, means that you have a licence to use those items. You do not actually own those items. This is a very fine point, and the problem with assets that have historically (and I use that term loosely) been used by younger people. There have not been as many owners dying, so this has not become a critical issue. Yet.

Ultimately, there will need to be changes to intellectual property law to allow purchased digital files to be transferred through a will the same way that physical files can be. Until then, this is an area that is very much up in the air. Or the cloud.