From Here to E-ternity

I can’t take credit for the title of this blog post because it comes from the title of a recent, thought-provoking article in TIME Magazine (US Edition, Feb. 11).

In “From Here to E-ternity: What Happens to Your Virtual Things When You’re Gone?“, Katy Steinmetz discusses digital assets – things like e-books, photos and e-mails – that live only on a computer or in the cloud and what happens to them when you die.

Although we purchase or create those assets, they often aren’t really ours.  As Ms. Steinmetz writes, “Providers like Yahoo and Aamzon often state that accounts are nontransferable or that what you ‘buy’ is not technically sold to you, just licensed for your personal use.”  So you may not be able to dispose of those assets as you see fit when you die due to conflicts with the terms of your service agreements.

The enormity of this concern is illustrated in an accompanying table in which Ms. Steinmetz discusses the reasons for concern, the existing rules, what you can do, and whether the rules will change for each of the following digital assets: e-books (e.g. Amazon’s Kindle), music (e.g. iTunes), gaming (e.g. World of Warcraft), photos (e.g. Flickr), movies and TV (e.g. Amazon Instant Video), e-mail (e.g. Gmail), social media (e.g. Facebook) and domain names.  For example, she provides the following information about social media:

  1. Why you should care – “Facebook has more than 1 billion users, Twitter more than 200 million.  Social media can be part of our legacies and popular accounts may have financial value.”
  2. What the rules are – “Twitter will transfer accounts if you jump thorugh legal hoops.  Facebook leaves pages up as memorials but will not grant account access.”
  3. What you can do – “Leave instructions in your will.  Lawyers advise keeping passwords in a separate document.”
  4. Will it change? – “Probably.  Policymakers are trying to give survivors greater access to the accounts of deceased loved ones.”

It will be interesting to see how lawmakers deal with this challenge, a challenge that must be addressed as we increasingly live our lives in the digital world and amass sizeable (and often costly) collections of digital assets.

Note: You can access the full article through a hard copy subscription to TIME or via a paid, online subscription.

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