Estate Planning Digital Media Edition: Who Inherits Your Library?

People accumulate vast libraries of digital music and books throughout their lifetimes, but their hard earned collections may expire when they do, unfortunately.

In the past, someone who owned thousands of hardcover books or vinyl records could pass them down to descendants, but legal experts say bequeathing iTunes and Kindle libraries is much more complicated.

Digital Estate Planning Conundrums

Heirs everywhere stand to lose out on substantial sums of money. Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife,” has a tough time imagining a situation where a family is fine losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs. Dividing one account among multiple heirs is also a difficult legal prospect.

The main issue stems from the fact that holders of digital content — unlike owners of print books or physical albums — only own a license to use the digital files, but don’t actually own them.

Both Apple and grant nontransferable rights to use content, meaning if you purchase the complete discography of the Beatles on iTunes, you can’t give the “White Album” to your daughter and “Abbey Road” to your son. Amazon terms dictate the purchaser does not acquire any ownership rights in the software or music content, while Apple limits use of digital files to Apple devices used by the account holder only.

Estate Planning Law Lagging Behind

On average, Americans spend $360 per year on e-books and mp3 files, according to e-commerce company Bango. That adds up to a substantial collection, even for amateur collectors. Even as more and more of our assets are digital today, intellectual property laws are lagging far behind, making it difficult to pass down digital libraries. It is not legal to impersonate another person and use their passwords, and that’s why some states have passed laws allowing executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts. Unfortunately, no regulations currently cover purchased digital files.

So what are the legal and practical options? David Goldman, a lawyer in Jacksonville, is launching new software to help estate planners create a legal trust for their clients’ online accounts that hold music, movies, and e-books.

There are lots of important questions to ask as you prepare your will and decide who should receive each of your assets. Cohen & Burnett is here to help you know which questions to ask and how best to answer them.

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