What happens to our digital property after we die?
Lorne Gladstone of Toronto is 58, but prudently pondering how to bequeath his digital property. Doing the paperwork after his parents’ death was a challenge. “When my time comes, I wonder if my children will even know what paper is,” he says. As a software developer, his virtual assets are both valuable and vital to his business. That exemplifies a problem. Online lives have increasing economic and sentimental value. But testamentary laws offer muddled and incomplete ways of bequeathing and inheriting them.
Digital assets may include software, websites, downloaded content, online gaming identities, social-media accounts and even e-mails. In Britain alone holdings of digital music may be worth over £9 billion ($14 billion). A fifth of respondents to a Chinese local-newspaper survey said they had over 5,000 yuan ($790) of digital property. And value does not lie only in money. “Anyone with kids under 14 years old probably has two prints of them and the rest are in online galleries,” says Nathan Lustig of Entrustet, a company that helps people manage digital estates.
Service providers have different rules—and few state them clearly in their terms and conditions. Many give users a personal right to use an account, but nobody else, even after death. Facebook allows relatives to close an account or turn it into a memorial page. Gmail (run by Google) will provide copies of e-mails to an executor. Music downloaded via iTunes is held under a licence which can be revoked on death. Apple declined to comment on the record on this or other policies. All e-mail and data on its iCloud service are deleted on the death of the owner.
This has led to litigation in America. In 2004 the family of Justin Ellsworth, a marine killed in Iraq, took Yahoo! to court in Michigan to get copies of his e-mails. This year, a court in Oregon ruled that another bereaved American mother could use her dead son’s password to enter his Facebook account for a short period. Now five American states have enacted laws giving executors control over the social-networking profiles of deceased users.
But this raises the subject of privacy. Passing music on is one thing; not everyone may want their relatives snooping on their e-mails. Colin Pearson, a London-based lawyer, says access should come only with an explicit provision in a will.