Who owns a person’s digital and online data when they die?

Apple recently made national news following their misunderstanding of an estate related query from one of their customers in the UK.

A son inherited his mother’s iPad device and he appealed to the manufacturer to help him unlock it.  The company asked for a series of legal steps to be undertaken and documents to be provided with the request as their concern was to protect the account information, data and content of the original owner.

When the company realised that the son only wanted to use the device and for it to be returned to its factory settings, that is to say, wiped clean of its previous owner’s accounts, data and history, it duly complied and fulfilled the request.

This news story highlighted that online data and accounts do not automatically have the same status as we associate with traditional or fixed assets that form part of an estate. In this case, while the iPad as a device was seen as transferable from person to person, the data and software contained within it was not and may not have been, even if wishes regarding it had been explicitly outlined in a will.

Who actually owns digital assets is a key yet unclear issue in today’s estate and legacy planning. There was a hoax story a while ago in which Bruce Willis was suing Apple because he wouldn’t be able to pass his extensive iTunes collection on to his children when he died. The story was bogus but as Paul Gordon, Associate for Finlaysons, a national law firm in Australia points out, the issue is real.

“Often when you ‘buy’ music online what you are actually acquiring is a licence to listen to it, rather than buying the song itself,” Gordon points out. “That licence may come with restrictions and may not be passed onto your next of kin when you die (i.e. a ‘personal’ contract). These issues aren’t going to go away and I’m sure will come before the courts in the coming years.”

In a previous post, I’ve mentioned how people who have lost relatives or friends often have a drive to find out more about them, including their digital lives. While this latest case with Apple made headlines, it’s not an uncommon event. Digital providers will not just hand over access to personal data or information of the deceased unless there’s a legal requirement to do so as their position is to defend the privacy of the account holder, in death as in life.

Damin Murdock, Principal Lawyer of the MurdockCheng Legal Practice based in Sydney suggests that when writing up a will, individuals remove any ambiguity about how they want their digital information dealt with upon their death.

“I always recommend my clients to have a list of all bank accounts, passwords, PIN numbers and so forth with respect to financial institutions,” Murdock says.

“The same should apply for digital accounts. Next time you see a lawyer to update your Will, you should ask that lawyer to help you include your digital accounts, usernames and passwords. They can also work with you to provide for all intellectual property rights contained in each asset to be transferred to the respective beneficiary. Lastly, you can waive your rights to privacy so your Executor can gain access to your accounts and deal with them in accordance with your wishes (if this is what you really want).”

Gordon concurs and doesn’t anticipate changes in legislation to digital and online asset ownership anytime soon.

“In the US, several states have passed laws which deal with access to social media accounts, allowing the executor to take control after death. This is slowly creeping across the States but is yet to appear in Australia.”

He agrees that it is important to consider what will happen after you die and make sure it is well documented, ideally in a will, but also known amongst family members.

“Like a lot of these things, people often put them off as it means facing up to their own mortality. But it is important to do to save your loved ones from having to go through difficult and complex legal processes to get access to your online assets.”

Comments

  1. This topic is so very important and becoming more so every day. It’s not something that many think about…until a loved one dies and their social media persona lives on. We created a checklist that we give away for free to help people think about this and other digital assets they need to be proactive about. Check that out at http://www.safelyfiled.com/home/checklists.

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