by Bryan Dik
There was a time when I held the title “chief writer” for a regional music and arts magazine. The best part of the job was the free music; record labels looking to journalists for reviews would send pre-release albums, lots of them. As a result, I accumulated hundreds of CDs during that two-year period. They still sit jam-packed in a cabinet. What happens to them when I die? Most likely, my wife would go through them, pull out the ones she thinks that she and our boys would enjoy, let a few of my friends choose the best of what remains, and donate any that are left. Not pleasant to think about, but it’d be a little like leaving a tiny legacy of what (in my obviously biased opinion) is good taste in music.
In the digital world, though, the hundreds of albums that you’ve been accumulating are not occupying a dusty cabinet but a server on the cloud. You may have one of these virtual music libraries yourself, which means you can identify with this question: What happens to them when you die? Katy Steinmetz took on this question recently in Time (February 11, 2013, issue, p. 54). The answer to the question of what happens to your virtual stuff after you die is frustrating, frightening, and maybe maddening. Your iTunes library? Apple says “We do not have a policy to will or inherit an iTunes collection.” The movies you have on Vudu? No transferring to heirs is allowed, although the company claims to be “looking into it.” Those family photos that you’ve uploaded to Flickr? Keep them backed up on a hard drive or two, because unless you leave consent and a password, your account dies with you.
The right to privacy is something most of us value deeply and that is what social media and tech companies are trying to preserve. Maybe you just don’t want people rummaging through your digital stuff after you’re gone. Still, it’s hard for your heart not to ache for a family like the Stassens in Prescott, WI. Their son, a twenty-one-year-old college student named Benjamin, committed suicide without leaving a note, and no one saw it coming. Like reading through a diary, wouldn’t looking for clues in Benjamin’s online accounts be a reasonable way to try to make sense why he took his life? The Stassens thought so, but Facebook and Google wouldn’t budge, and a painful court battle ensued.
Five states now have laws to address the question of who has rights to one’s digital assets, and more legislation is being written, but right now the question is laden with uncertainty and confusion. How do you deal with this? The best answer for now appears to be tread lightly, give trusted loved ones access to logins and passwords, and consider putting things that matter to you down on paper. Good ol’ technology; makes life so much easier, doesn’t it?