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Digital legacy: who will inherit my data?

Andrew Stucken / 19 September 2012

Recent reports that actor Bruce Willis was suing Apple over the right to bequeath his iTunes collection have sparked a debate over digital ownership.

When you die, does ownership of your music revert back to iTunes?
When you die, does ownership of your music revert back to iTunes?

The stories that broke in the British press proved false, but have shone a spotlight on the subject.

And you may be surprised to learn that you probably do not own a great deal of your digital content – if any.

Does this not offend against natural justice?

We take for granted the right to hand on physical books, records and films. But if you check the terms and conditions of a digital purchase closely – and very few of us do – you will probably find the rights to your content are not transferable. In other words, when you die, your digital libraries die with you. 

Seven ways an iPhone could save your life.

Do you own music on iTunes?

When you buy a track from iTunes you have purchased a license for the music, not the music itself, which cannot be transferred to another person. 

Precise interpretation of agreements is of course an area for lawyers, but it seems you may not bequeath your iTunes library to anyone. 

You could pass on user names and passwords of any account, but the provider would have the right to suspend it. 

You can, however, as a workaround, leave that music to someone if it is stored on a device.

What about books, films and photos?

Amazon’s terms forbid the transfer of eBooks between devices so it seems you cannot divide up your digital library like a physical one. 

The same principle applies to any music or films you download from Amazon. You don’t own the content – you have acquired a licence to use it. 

You can, however, leave eBooks purchased from Amazon to someone, on a Kindle. Amazon confirms: “With access to your account, family members will be able to access your digital content”. 

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How about photos?

You might want to ensure treasured snaps survive your death. Popular online photo hosting site Flickr reserves the right to shut down inactive accounts. It also states the right to use its software is not transferable.

And social networking?

Facebook does allow your family to tum your page into a memorial as long as they supply proof of your death. However, its terms and conditions seem to bar you from transferring your account to anyone without prior written permission. 

Twitter’s conditions meanwhile seem to indicate an account cannot be transferred. It is unlikely it would take legal action against a relative logging into your account after you die, but it has a policy on inactive accounts and chances are your account would be deleted if it is not used for a while.

If all this still seems like a step backwards for consumer rights, it is worth reflecting that you do not own the copyright of physical books and CDs you buy either – and they are prone to decay, damage and loss.

The law is lagging behind the technology, but given time, might well catch up.

For more tips and useful information, browse our technology articles. 

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.