These days, two things are absolutely certain: People are accumulating a growing pile of digital assets, and it’s not clear what happens to all of this stuff when we die.
According to iTunes, I have 3,439 songs in my digital music library. My computer also holds 31,123 digital photos, 293 videos, and a mélange of movies, TV shows and other content. Let’s not even get into all the posts, photos and other artifacts residing on Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites.
I’m certain that the film, music and e-book industries would love for the paid content to disintegrate into digital dust because this represents an opportunity to extract more cash from heirs for the same content.
Some companies, such as Apple and Amazon, have taken steps to address death and digital assets. Unfortunately, many others have not. Amid all of this: Digital licensing is far more restrictive than terms for physical assets such as vinyl records, CDs and books.
Social media creates other problems. A January 2013 Huffington Post article noted that, at press time, 30 million people on Facebook had virtual profiles that have outlived them. In addition, about 3 million had memorial sites. Not surprisingly, heated legal battles have erupted over account access, who controls these assets, and what happens to accounts and content.
Last week, Delaware became the first state in the United States to address this issue in any significant way. It passed a law that allows the deceased in that state to bequeath digital assets and their accounts to heirs—just as they would with physical assets.
But there are still many more questions than answers. What’s more, some of these digital assets can amount to more than a pile of digital beans—and songs. For example, a domain name might fetch tens of thousands of dollars, or more. Intellectual property or designs could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars—even millions.
Digital estate planning is no longer an afterthought. There’s a growing array of products and services addressing the needs of the digitally deceased, including Google’s Inactive Account Manager and Yahoo Ending in Japan. The latter handles everything from what happens to online content and artifacts to generating a final message to survivors.
It’s certainly not one happy digital ending.