When you die, does your Facebook account die with you? Or that online photo album? What about your iTunes playlist, blogs or tweets?
Laws in the United States and elsewhere are vague on the fate of digital rights to online accounts after death, leading to complications and legal wrangling for survivors who want access to the online services of the deceased.
Legal experts say it’s unclear who owns what in the Internet “cloud,” and that in some cases the user agreement for email or social networking sites terminates when a person dies.
Hence, the floodgates open once again for unwanted litigation. . .
In the case of online photo albums, “those photos are yours and you have a copyright, but the problem is if you upload them to a site like Shutterfly, the property you own is now stuck behind a license,” said Nathan Dosch, a Wisconsin attorney specializing in estate planning.
Remember, each company has different licensing rules and regulations! Read them carefully before sharing your intimate moments and memories via photos, video and stories. For example, I don’t agree to the privacy violation terms of Facebook, therefore I do not participate.
“The underlying asset is still owned by you but the access terminates on your death. The same can be said about emails.”
Gerry Beyer, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law, said the definition of “digital assets” remains subject to interpretation.
??? Code words for who has the higher powered attorney in the hearing. Which translates to which party is prepared to throw more money into the case.
A key issue is whether what is in the online accounts is “property” with any value.
This leaves open a great potential for litigation, he said.
“You could think the last month of tweets from (late British singer) Amy Winehouse would be valuable… what if the company erases it all?” said Beyer.
Some accounts may have actual value, such as revenue-producing blogs, while others may have important sentimental value.
In one case that drew considerable attention, the family of a US Marine killed in Iraq went to court in 2005 after being blocked from getting access to his Yahoo email account, with the company arguing that it could not release “private” information and that the account was “non-transferable” under terms of service.
Nobody really likes to think about mortality, especially not their own,” said Jeremy Toeman, co-founder of a startup called Legacy Locker, which bills itself as a “secure repository for your digital property.”
Toeman said he supports a digital “manifesto” that would establish rights to online accounts for a reasonable period.
He said that in planning for handling online accounts, consumers can use a number of options including simply writing down instructions for family members, but adds, “We think that if it’s an online world and an online identity you should have an online service.”
Experts advise against detailing all digital assets in a will, which could become a public document, opening up the possibility of identity theft.
Some say a separate document or executor for digital assets could be useful, and Beyer said that one way to preserve access would be to register accounts in the name of a trust, control of which could be transferred on death.
There is no easy answer for handling the issue, say Evan Carroll and John Romano, who operate the blog “The Digital Beyond” and authored the book “Your Digital Afterlife.”
Beware of things you share with others on their so-called “Digital Assets.” If they suddenly drop dead who knows what will happen to all of the “confidential information” between parties that once existed.