Digital Collections Likely to Disappear at Death

Saturday, 25 Aug 2012 11:07 PM

By Todd Beamon

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If you’re building up a collection of digital books or music in the hope that you can pass it on to your loved ones, think again, experts say.

Bequeathing iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated than, say, passing on 10,000 hardcover books, CDs or vinyl records, they believe.

“I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife,” tells MarketWatch.com. “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”

The primary problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files, even though they don’t actually own them.

Apple and Amazon grant “nontransferable” rights to use content. As such,  you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, but you cannot give the “White Album” to your son or “Abbey Road” to your daughter, MarketWatch reports.

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

“That account is an asset and something of value,” Deirdre R. Wheatley-Liss, an estate-planning attorney in Parsippany, N.J., tells MarketWatch.

But can it be passed on to one’s heirs?

Most digital content exists in a legal black hole. “The law is light years away from catching up with the types of assets we have in the 21st Century,” Wheatley-Liss tells MarketWatch.

In recent years, states including Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho have passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who’ve died, but the regulations do not cover the digital files purchased, according to MarketWatch.

Apple and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.


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