Music, movies, books and photos are all examples of things that we used to own physically but are now in digital form. Unlike the tangible items like CDs, DVDs or books, the digital versions of these items are licensed to an individual rather than owned. In addition, when these are purchased through one of the many services, the rights that go along with it prohibit the digital files from being transferred other individuals. This has huge implications if you or a family member dies because technically the licenses of the digital media prevent them from being transferred even to another family member. This is why digital inheritance laws are needed in today’s world and Delaware has finally enacted the first in the US.
Why Digital Inheritance Matters
Now so far I have only talked about the actual physical files that you have purchased but the implications of inheritance go much further. Take for instance photos. Many people take lots of photos. There is little question that if those files are stored on a computer hard drive you have access to, your heirs would not have a problem accessing them. The problem comes from the reliance on more and more digital services. It could be storing them online through one of the many cloud services or social networks such as Facebook or Twitter.
The problem arises from the fact that the terms of these services generally prohibit sharing of an account between members. Thus, if someone dies, the files could be locked in a digital limbo forever or even removed by the service. Now some services may have policies that allow family members access in the event of a death but there is no common law in terms of who can have access or when. This is one of the things that the Delaware law addresses.
Still Needs Work
While Delaware’s law helps address the situation of digital assets, there are still a few issues with it. For instance, the rights of who gets access to what must be explicitly detailed by the account holder. In the event of a sudden death where no such legal document exists, there can still be issues with regards to accessing the deceased’s digital files. You can say that this is akin to having no will and figuring out who gets what item out of an estate though.
Now some states have adopted some limited digital inheritance laws but they differ from Delaware’s in that they only allow the next of kin to gain access to the deceased’s accounts. For instance, they could gain access to a Facebook account to remove content but it does not deal with digital transfer rights. For instance, they can have access to an iTunes account but they don’t have the right to copy those files over to their accounts.
Hopefully more states will take up what Delaware has started as a means to getting a universal digital inheritance law that can apply to everyone in the US and provide a standard guide for how technology companies deal with the situation.