YourDigitalAfterlifeAs more of our lives move into the digital realm, the bequeathing of digital assets has the potential to become a huge issue. iTunes has already taken away the one album I purchased from them years ago. And from a legal standpoint, it is not yet clear what will happen to a digital account when someone dies. If we have an Amazon family account, could my husband or child simply take it over? Could digital media accounts be set up in such a way so that users can be ‘merged’ if someone passes away?

Authors Evan Carroll and John Romano have begun to address these issues in Your Digital Afterlife, which has been getting some buzz online. Although the book is a few years old (it was published in 2011) it does have some good suggestions in it. For example, the authors are proponents of digital culling and suggest that you weed through your stash periodically so that your heirs are not faced with virtual folders full of junk. I do this often myself. My Calibre library is very well-organized, with the books tagged appropriately and labelled or described reasonably carefully. Part of this is for my own convenience, so that I can find the things I’m looking for. Part of it is also so that my kids, if they turn out to be readers, can someday browse my books as well and find the things they want to read. But I am aware too that someday that backup drive will be theirs, to keep or dispose of as they wish. I don’t want them wasting months, as we did with my grandfather, sifting through all my stuff and trying to determine whether it’s useful.

Of course, the bugbear in this whole thing is DRM. The unspoken assumption in all of this organizing, culling and weeding is that you’ll be doing so with actual, useful files. And that means that if you do purchase DRM-encumbered content, you’ll have to be prepared to ‘liberate’ it from these protections before you back it up for your future heirs. If Amazon won’t let me bequeath my Kindle account to someone, none of my digital content is going to be of any use unless I am comfortable taking matters into my own hands. This is going to be the next frontier in ‘digital asset management’ I think. Will Amazon or Kobo or iBooks let me bequeath my books? Or is protecting my bought and paid for stuff going to, unacceptably, remain a legal grey area?

Related: The Digital Beyond Web site and a YouTube. Also see DRM nightmare: After recent upgrade, Kobo customers report losing Sony books from their libraries, by Chris Meadows. Even when you’re alive, future access to DRMed books can be problematic. Should laws even discourage use of encryption-based DRM in “sold” books and require notices that they are not truly ownable, long term? David Rothman thinks so.

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"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."


  1. As long as readers accept the terms of sale (TOS), the DRM and siloing are merely the executors of said agreement. Clicking through TOS acceptance is the death of a thousand cuts to all sorts of things we used to assume as granted. Ownership is one and the option to sue is another. These things are being taken from us in a subtle process of successive approximation obfuscated by the click through agreement that hardly anyone bothers to read. That process will continue to expand and become ever more aggressive. They have us where they want us.
    What might help is to have an independent TOS rating system that is more easily and quickly understood by consumers. This probably won’t happen without government intervention and enabling legislation. Even then, consumers will have to act on the information and vendors will need to have a way of knowing how many sales were lost due to TOS rejection. They haven’t a clue today.

  2. @Frank: Thanks. I certainly agree with you that typical consumers don’t know what the devil is going on. A more accurate phrase would be “terms of access.” We’re really not talking about a true “sale.” If publishers couldn’t use the highly misleading label of “sale,” DRMed retail books would be less common than they are today. I wonder if anyone has ever approached the FTC on this issue. So sad. Misguided publishers, in insisting on encryption-based DRM, are devaluing books as a permanent medium, not just misleading consumers. I continue to hope that publishers will understand the potential of social DRM (not technically DRM) as a compromise.

  3. In my long list of information for my daughter, I have included my Amazon password. She could take over the account by switching the method of payment to a credit card of hers. That is, if she wants to do so. The other possibility is her turning it over to my daughter in law whose taste in reading is much more similar to mine.

    In regard to David’s comment about publishers devaluing books as a permanent medium. they don’t know they are doing this because they are likely still operating under the delusion that we will buy the hard cover if the e-book is priced too high. They have no respect for digital books; only the print version is a real book.

  4. All this assumes that you ‘purchase’ an e- book in perpetuity. This isn’t the case. You (at best) rent a copy from people who have negotiated that right from publishers. They can take it away from you at any time; You only bought a right to read a copy and keep a digital version (on a device or via an account). These digital items are not tangible goods and certainly shouldn’t be treated as such. And as for the idea of bequeathing an Amazon account…words fail me. When a person dies, the rights to that account should die with them. What possibly earthly use could it be to next of kin? And as for digital bequests, these are about as valid as bequeathing one’s library card to your nearest and dearest. The rights to an account should die with the holder, excepting the circumstance of executors closing an estate. Digital goods can never be the same types of chattel as physical ones – see the problems based in the virtual world ‘Second Life’ for how such virtual economies fare.

    • “What possibly earthly use could it be to next of kin?” You don’t find a Prime Account possibly useful?? It’s been bought and paid for, Friend, and the benefit flows to the heirs. This should not be news to you.

      As for digital rights, there’s strictly legal then there’s practical. If you’ve got the Amazon password, it’s not very likely that the copyright police will knock your door down to throw you in jail for bringing the e-book into a de-drm’d Calibre. Now is it?? The same goes for the dead guy’s Kindle.

      In other words, nobody but a jerk would post comments like yours.

  5. Mary is right. Prepare in advance by maintaining a list of all your accounts and their passwords. Apps like 1Password make that even easier. All you need do is give your family its one password.

    When a brother-in-law of mine died recently after a long illness, he left my sister well prepared. I don’t know about iTunes and Amazon accounts, but airlines told her that, as long as she could log-in to his accounts, she could use his frequent flyer miles.

    Eventually, this needs to be addressed by legislation. But neither political party seems to care about fixing the problems of ordinary people. Both only address problems that beltway lobbyists care about. With copyright, the interest of holders (i.e. publishers) and exploiters (i.e. Hollywood) cancel out. For digital sales, it’s in the interest of companies such as Amazon to leave this problem unsolved as long as possible. Giving real ownership of digital media could open the door to third-party sales. That they don’t want.

    If you’re breaking DRM and plan to use that to pass your digital media along, make an effort to document that first purchase with Amazon’s records or whatever. Also, include the ownership transfer explicitly in the will. Copyright interests should be part of a mandated provision in wills, but then again that’s expecting state legislatures to do something no one is paying them to do.

    We live in rotten times, as illustrated by the two dreadful choices for president we’re likely to face in November. For someone who can remember presidents back to the excellent Eisenhower, it’s depressing. it’s like our country has morphed into a banana republic. Do we vote for the crook or the buffon? That’s no choice.

  6. Miles, I think some of the difficulty is that Amazon charges full retail price for their e-books in many cases, and when you make the transaction, the button says ‘buy now’ rather than ‘lease now.’ I think people reasonably assume that if they pay full price and the transaction is called a sale, they own it. This has been one of the arguments for cheaper e-book prices for years. If it’s a rental, call it that, charge a rental-level price, and then sure, all rights to it die with me. But if I bought it for full price, I should be able to do what I want with it, same as I could with a paper copy.

  7. @Joanna, I agree that “buy now” is deceptive and deliberately misleading but were we ever to be able to bring these folks to account in a deposition or legislative hearing, the’d claim that everybody knows or should know that what they are buying is a license.
    The winnowing process that separated us from ownership with respect to eBooks is being employed in many other areas of our lives, even with physical things such as how banks handle our money, whether we can sue or band together with others to seek a redress of some grievance against a corporation. It’s not just digital things.

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