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Tombstones

Who really inherits your digital legacy when you die?

Many people will accumulate vast digital libraries in their lifetimes. The ease of buying titles from Amazon, iBooks and iTunes has meant more people are beginning to consume media digitally than ever before.

Tony Seifart
With a Degree in Heavy Current Electrical Engineering from UCT Tony Seifart quit his first job after six months when he realised his boss was the one... More

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Last month Amazon.com announced that it now officially sells more books via it’s Kindle than print books in the UK. As the popularity for digital books grow, the trend is sure to follow in other areas.

But who exactly owns your digital assets when you die? And can you leave them for your decedents?

In the “good old days” you could leave your library or LP collection to your kids, or it could be sold and the proceeds donated to charity. Whichever way you looked at it, your music and book libraries were part of your estate and had an intrinsic value (for which the government was also entitled to its fair share via so-called Death Taxes).

Legal opinion around the world shows that when it comes to your Digital Assets, things are a lot more complicated.

Firstly, there’s the issue of true ownership. When you buy a physical book or CD it’s quite clear that you own the book and you’re permitted to use it for yourself. Of course, it comes with limitations (you don’t own the rights to the content, but it’s yours to use personally).

Online, however, you only own the rights to use the content. Both Apple and Amazon grant “non-transferable” rights to you, which means that when you die, you cannot leave your digital collection to your children, or anyone else, for that matter.

So here’s the rub: Over your lifetime you’ll probably spend hundreds of dollars buying books and albums that you’ll use, but you can’t pass it on to anyone else. The terms of use say it’s exclusively for your enjoyment.

While it is possible for you to leave your Amazon Username and Password to someone else in the event of your death, the entire process is rather messy. They may have their own account and there is no way to merge accounts or to allow you to split your account between children.

The law makes no provision for these circumstances. Once again it has been left behind while the Digital Millennium moves swiftly on. And it does get a bit more complicated than that. Whose law should apply? As a South African citizen, surely South Africa’s laws should have jurisdiction over my estate when I die, and yet my Electronic Estate is governed by external laws (for Apple it would be the State of California).

So how then should the executor of my will proceed? Should my Digital Assets be listed with my physical assets (and therefore be taxed accordingly)? Or are they merely ignored?

Perhaps it would be more correct to say that I am simply leasing the right to read a book or listening to an album, at which the point of my death signals the end of the agreement.

Whatever the answer to these questions, it remains clear that lawmakers need to consider that much of our lives now “live in the Cloud” and that such things do need to be considered.

Until then it seems the easiest solution is to leave your Amazon Account and AppleID details with your will.