It’s your digital legacy and virtual wealth. Or is it?
Every single time we engage in Internet activity, we add to our individual digital legacy. And most of us do so with little thought about it.
Who owns that legacy? And what happens to it when we depart this world? What about our collections of music, movies and eBooks? Our active eBay auction bids? Our photos and email accounts? And then there are those websites we’d just as soon nobody knows about.
Planning to leave your iTunes collections to cousin Sarah? Not going to happen. You don’t own them. You are only licensed to access them until your, well, your terminal demise. Then your collection and account are terminated. See the fine print in “Terms of Service.”
Gmail, Yahoo!, Hotmail, LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, Blogger, Flickr, Shutterfly, Go Daddy, Amazon, PayPal, eBay and the like all have different policies regarding copyright ownership, licensing and access to accounts by heirs and legal executors — policies that can be a veritable nightmare for grieving family members. There’s also the growing problem of identity theft if accounts are not handled properly and promptly.
Because digital legacies are a relatively new phenomenon, issues surrounding them are only recently coming to light, as more online account holders are dying, leaving families to discover and navigate the digital abyss in search of their loved one’s online presence.
To play many online games, such as “World of Warcraft,” you agree that your user account is nontransferable and terminates upon your death. And the monetary value of virtual goods in the United States is estimated at over $1 billion.
Heirs do file lawsuits against companies with such policies, but the lack of precedence in such cases makes these attempts complicated and expensive. Judicial rulings are mixed.
Most email providers require presentation of a death certificate, along with other documentation, from a person wanting access to another’s account before they will even consider granting it. Ever tried to reach a real person at Google, Yahoo! or Hotmail?
Facebook has added an “If I Die” app so users can create a memorial video or message that can be activated upon the user’s death. It locks the account to prevent triggering reconnect messages after a period of inactivity. That’s nice — but read the fine print.
The complications of digital asset trails (or lack of trails) are causing enough of a stir that two states, Oklahoma and Idaho, recently enacted legislation giving heirs and executors greater power against certain online policies. More states are expected to follow suit.
I’d just read Oklahoma’s digital asset management statute when I ran into local attorney Kirk Rider. What does he think about it?
“If the will grants to the executor (personal representative) the power to assume control of the decedent’s online accounts and social sites, it shouldn’t take a statute to make that power effective,” he said. “Bottom line: The will or power of attorney needs to address these matters in any case.”
So what to do to protect (or remove) our digital legacies when it’s time?
Rider suggested making a digital will of sorts, in addition to, but separate from, a legal will, which can become a matter of public record in probate. This auxiliary will should include online accounts, passwords and instructions for how to handle the digital assets as well as any copyrights you may own. Specify in writing who you want to be the executor of your digital will and keep the document in a secure place, like a safety deposit box in the bank.
As I rub my eyes, weary from reading through the fine print of nearly 20 different online policies, licensing agreements and copyright clauses, I’m overcome by a whole new level of respect and appreciation for those old-fashioned, case-bound books printed on archival paper on the dusty shelves in the spare bedroom, the big vinyl LPs boxed up in the attic and those lovely old photos printed on Kodak paper in vintage shoeboxes in the back of my closet.