Estate-planning is surely far from the minds of the majority of us when we log into iTunes to buy a copy of the latest catchy song from the radio. While we accumulate ever-larger collections of digital media (books, movies, TV shows and music), most of us have never bothered to consider what happens to our electronic treasures once we’re gone. The answer, sadly, is that most of it will expire with us.
There’s something about the idea that just doesn’t sit well. After all, someone who bought 10,000 books or records or DVDs could easily pass them along to their heirs. Legal experts say the same may not be true when it comes to our digital treasures, something that comes at a cost to descendants who stand to lose out on potentially large sums of money. In practice, dividing one iTunes or Kindle account among multiple heirs would be extremely difficult.
The issue isn’t a minor one as one survey by the e-commerce company Bango revealed consumers in the U.S. spend nearly $30 each month (so $360 per year) on electronic books, movies and music files. This number is set to continue a stratospheric rise as Apple alone has sold upwards of 300 million iPods and more than 84 million iPads.
The first piece of the puzzle is that the rights you have over digital content are not the same as the rights you have over physical copies of the same material. Each time you click “Buy” you’re actually only purchasing a license to use the digital file. The problem is that two of the electronic giants, Apple and Amazon, only grant “nontransferable” rights to use this content. This means it cannot be passed along to others. Amazon states its policy clearly: “You do not acquire any ownership rights in the software or music content.” That copy of Mission Impossible you bought cannot later be transferred to your sister. Apple limits the use of digital files to Apple devices used by the account holder.
The troubles with such digital content have yet to make their way through the courts. Experts agree that the law is woefully out of date when it comes to such novel problems and it will take years to catch up with the assets people own today. Some states may at least be getting on the right track. Recently, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who died. However, even these states did not deal with what happens with digital content that has been purchased by the deceased.
The easiest solution is to just go on using your loved one’s devices and logging into their accounts after they’re gone. This assumes that you have their password of course. Many believe a simpler solution should exist and the answer involves reforming and updating intellectual property law. Until then, always remember to keep your iPod backed up.
Whether you have few assets or a multi-million dollar estate, you need to have an effective estate plan that works for your family. As a board certified estate planning, trusts, and probate lawyer, I have the skills and knowledge to handle complex estate planning matters (certified as a specialist by the California State Bar Board of Legal Specialization). To schedule a consultation to discuss your estate planning goals and needs, please contact us.