Digital files such as ebooks, movies and mp3s are property, say the people who sell them. According to anti-piracy campaigns, to download them for free via file sharing, torrents or websites is equivalent to stealing a handbag. The trouble is, they don’t like it if you reverse the process. In theory, if you buy something and it is your property, it is your right to share it with your friends, or even sell it on as second hand. People have long done this and very publicly so, despite the fact that small disclaimers inside books, CDs and DVDs explicitly forbid you from doing so. This law is however, never enforced and shops regularly sell second hand books and media.
It is taken for granted that the same cannot be said for digital content. We cannot legally or practically “lend” an ebook or MP3 file to somebody – by doing this we essentially make another copy, rather than passing around a single physical copy, and we are lead to believe that to do so is wrong, as wrong as stealing. Increasingly however, people are starting to wonder about something that seems rather less fair – what happens to your purchases when you die?
Last month it was widely reported that Hollywood star Bruce Willis is considering suing Apple about conditions in the iTunes licence agreement. Debate as to the truth behind the rumour is rife, but it is not hard to suppose that any person, particularly proud of their eclectic, varied and valuable iTunes or Kindle collection would wish to pass them on to their children when they pass away. Currently, laws do not support this and in the case of digital ebooks and music, this has come as a shock to many.
A good proportion of us see our taste in literature and music as deeply personal and for as long as they have existed, people have amassed libraries of books and records as a way to express their personalities, preferences and track their life journey. It is very common for people to specifically request that their libraries are left to children, part of a legacy to pass on. Digital content has allowed far greater freedom with which to express oneself, with a far wider range of titles and obscure, personally loved forgotten classics being made available. But stores such as iTunes, Kindle and Kobo all explicitly state that when you die, any rights to your collection disappears.
Whoever inherits your ebook reader, tablet or mp3 player is legally bound to delete all content and certainly they cannot choose to upgrade to a new device and port the content across. Regardless of how much money was paid for this content, it effectively disappears when you die, and that legacy that you spent years lovingly collecting and perfecting is destroyed forever.
Regardless of whether it is Bruce Willis, it is only a matter of time before somebody sues, and wins their case. The laws may have to be changed and this could only be a good thing. A precedent was set in early 2011 that digital content can indeed be seen as real tangible property, when Ashley Mitchell was convicted of stealing online virtual poker chips from Facebook company Zynga, a trial that left many experts scratching their heads. Content providers cannot have it both ways. If online poker chips are property and downloading a mp3 is like stealing a handbag, then invalidating Kindle or iTunes libraries upon death is robbing the dead of passing on a legacy of deeply personal literary and musical history. Hopefully these landmark cases can help steer user agreements to an outcome that is fair for all.