Who inherits your iTunes library?

Who inherits your iTunes library?

Many of us will accumulate vast libraries of digital books and music over the course of our lifetimes. But when we die, our collections of words and music may expire with us.

Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.

And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”

Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files — but they don’t actually own them.

Apple AAPL, +0.79% and Amazon.com AMZN, +0.98% grant “nontransferable” rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the “White Album” to your son and “Abbey Road” to your daughter.

According to Amazon’s terms of use, “You do not acquire any ownership rights in the software or music content.” Apple limits the use of digital files to Apple devices used by the account holder.

“That account is an asset and something of value,” says Deirdre R. Wheatley-Liss, an estate-planning attorney at Fein, Such, Kahn & Shepard in Parsippany, N.J.

But can it be passed on to one’s heirs?

Most digital content exists in a legal black hole. “The law is light years away from catching up with the types of assets we have in the 21st Century,” says Wheatley-Liss. In recent years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who’ve died, but the regulations don’t cover digital files purchased.

Apple and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.

There are still few legal and practical ways to inherit e-books and digital music, experts say. And at least one lawyer has a plan to capitalize on what may become be a burgeoning market. David Goldman, a lawyer in Jacksonville, says he will next month launch software, DapTrust, to help estate planners create a legal trust for their clients’ online accounts that hold music, e-books and movies. “With traditional estate planning and wills, there’s no way to give the right to someone to access this kind of information after you’re gone,” he says.

Here’s how it works: Goldman will sell his software for $150 directly to estate planners to store and manage digital accounts and passwords. And, while there are other online safe-deposit boxes like AssetLock and ExecutorSource that already do that, Goldman says his software contains instructions to create a legal trust for accounts. “Having access to digital content and having the legal right to use it are two totally different things,” he says.

The simpler alternative is to just use your loved one’s devices and accounts after they’re gone — as long as you have the right passwords.


Chester Jankowski, a New York-based technology consultant, says he’d look for a way to get around the licensing code written into his 15,000 digital files. “Anyone who was tech-savvy could probably find a way to transfer those files onto their computer — without ending up in Guantanamo,” he says. But experts say there should be an easier solution, and a way such content can be transferred to another’s account or divided between several people.“We need to reform and update intellectual-property law,” says Dazza Greenwood, lecturer and researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.

Technology pros say the need for such reform is only going to become more pressing. “A significant portion of our assets is now digital,” Carroll says. U.S. consumers spend nearly $30 on e-books and MP3 files every month, or $360 a year, according to e-commerce company Bango. Apple alone has sold 300 million iPods and 84 million iPads since their launches. Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Kindle Fire, but analysts estimate it has nearly a quarter of the U.S. tablet market.

Death in the Digital Age: Tech Startups Help Us Cope With Mortality

Death in the Digital Age: Tech Startups Help Us Cope With Mortality

Death in the Digital Age: Tech Startups Help Us Cope With Mortality


How do you want to be remembered?

It’s a weighty question that we’ve all thought about at one time or another. Everybody hopes to have meaningful impact on the world while they’re here, whether that means touching the lives of millions or even just one person. That’s never going to change.

But the ways in which we prepare for death and memorialize our dearly departed are changing. And, like nearly everything else these days, technology has a hand in it. Some groups may be trying to crack the code on immortality, like Calico, a company started by Google and Apple to research how to prolong the human lifespan. Others are using software to try to solve more tractable problems.

Yes, it seems even death—or, rather, the death industry—is “ripe for disruption,” says Boston serial entrepreneur and investor Dave Balter. He is working on a stealthy startup, Mylestoned, tied to how we remember the dead.

“There’s no question that we’re in an era where death has not only become something we’re more aware [of] and comfortable [with] as individuals, but also that the industry has not evolved significantly to match how we live today,” says Balter, who previously co-founded startups in social marketing, online skills assessments, and leadership development.

He’s referring to funeral homes and the traditional custom of burying the dead in caskets, beneath a headstone. People are more “transient” these days, and it’s less common for them to live near the cemetery where their deceased relatives are buried or to routinely visit their graves, Balter says. At the same time, more people are opting for cremation, in part, he argues, because they want their lives honored in a different way, perhaps by having their ashes scattered into the sea.

“You’re seeing a major, major shift in how people think about what to do with their loved ones,” Balter says. “We’re searching for something more meaningful—something to memorialize our loved ones in the places where they had impact.”

And that’s what he’s trying to do with his new startup. It’s still early, and Balter isn’t ready to share more details about what he’s planning.

But his company is certainly not the only one hatching new ways to deal with death in the digital age. Humans have always grappled with their own mortality, and Balter thinks there’s increased interest among entrepreneurs because people are becoming more thoughtful about the value of their contributions to the world, and they’re preparing more for their eventual eulogy.

Technology is helping to “reframe what death means” to us, Balter says.

“We’re starting to see our lives so much more clearly through social media, through all these lenses,” he says.

At the same time, people are becoming more cognizant of death and its role in life, Balter says. “There’s greater awareness of what that looks like in a realm where we can all see each other’s worlds.”

Other tech startups are trying to help people prepare for their own deaths. One example is Cake, a young Boston company that participated in this year’s MassChallenge startup accelerator program. Cake developed an app that helps guide users through end-of-life planning, including giving them a checklist of recommended steps like designating a healthcare proxy and buying life insurance, and allowing them to create an online handbook of posthumous preferences and wishes for loved ones, doctors, and lawyers to carry out.

The year-old company is led by Suelin Chen, an MIT-trained materials scientist and engineer who has worked as a research assistant at Massachusetts General Hospital and directed The Laboratory at Harvard, a center for arts and sciences experimentation. Chen’s funeral playlist, according to her company’s website: “Islands in the Stream,” by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton; Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”; and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” by Queen.

Another startup, Israel-based SafeBeyond, recently launched a service that allows users to create an online vault of important documents and messages that can be shared posthumously with loved ones.

With SafeBeyond, people can record video or audio messages or type up letters that will be released to their heirs upon a predetermined triggering event. Those triggers can be an exact date, say a child’s 18th birthday; a major life event, such as a future wedding (a trustee previously chosen by the deceased would notify SafeBeyond that the event has occurred); or when an heir visits a specified place that holds meaning to the family, such as a favorite vacation spot.

Users who leave messages behind can’t “make the sadness disappear,” but the digital relics can help loved ones “cope a little better with the fact that I’m gone,” SafeBeyond founder and CEO Moran Zur explains.

SafeBeyond is positioning its service as a sort of digital time capsule that provides “emotional life insurance,” Zur says.

Like many startups, the idea for SafeBeyond was born of personal experience. Zur, a native of Israel, was 25 when he lost his father to cancer in 2002. Four years later, as Zur was preparing to get married, his father’s absence was saddening and frustrating. There were times that he “didn’t feel like doing” a big wedding in Israel without his father, he says.

“There’s so many things that you don’t think about it, but you kind of never get a chance to discuss when you’re 25,” Zur says. “You don’t think about getting married, you don’t think about kids, you don’t think about other advice that might be needed in the most important moments. What would my father have said about that?”

That gave Zur the idea for SafeBeyond, which he put on the backburner for several years while he led a brokerage company. But in 2012, hardship struck again—Zur’s wife was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Their son was 3 years old at the time, he says.

After chemotherapy failed to help, the family turned to alternative treatments that improved her health. Fortunately, she is “doing well” these days, Zur says.

Zur took his wife’s illness as a call to leave his comfortable job in the financial industry and start SafeBeyond, which is offering its online storage service for free.

“I’m doing it for her, doing it for my son as the receiver of these future messages,” Zur says. “It might be that he receives mine before he receives hers.”

Zur says he raised $500,000 in seed funding for SafeBeyond, which is based in Tel Aviv, with an outpost in New York. The company currently has six employees.

Zur says an exit for the company is not his primary concern, and he thinks the business can be sustained by charging for premium features on top of the basic free service, which gives users 1 gigabyte of storage.

But what if SafeBeyond itself dies? The company chose Amazon Web Services to host documents in the cloud, which was partly a move to provide more peace of mind that users’ messages will be preserved and disseminated after they die, even if SafeBeyond doesn’t endure, Zur says. “Our cost will be really, really small to maintain all that,” he adds.

Other services SafeBeyond offers include posting a pre-written final posthumous message on users’ social media pages and storing social media login information so that designated loved ones can access the accounts. People might not realize that without the account passwords, sites like Dropbox or Gmail won’t allow heirs to access deceased users’ accounts, Zur says. Facebook, meanwhile, has set up a legacy contact option that allows a designee to look after your account after you’ve passed away.

The fate of your social media accounts may not be as consequential as what happens to your remains or your assets. But the reality is that, for better or worse, the information about you floating around the Web could be the only thing tied to you that lives forever, at least publicly.

“If someone will go and search my name in 20 years in Google or whatever is going to be the interface, you will find some stuff about me easily, even if I’m gone,” Zur says. “Life has changed in this digital age. It can be debated, [but] from my perspective, there’s no way to be forgotten. At least take responsibility and decide how you want to be remembered.”

Digital Files After Death, What Happens to Your Digital Legacy?

No Phones, Please, This Is a Communications Class

Last semester I tried to create a college classroom that was a technological desert. I wanted the space to be a respite from the demands and distractions of smartphones, tablets, and computers.

So I banned the use of technology — because asking students to be professional digital citizens had not worked.

Simply requesting that students put away their phones was an exercise in futility. Adding a line in the syllabus that there would be grade penalties for unprofessional use of technology brought about no change in their habits of swiping and clicking.

They meant no disrespect. Technology pulled at them — and pulls at us — creating a sense of urgency that few can ignore.

I get it. This is not a college-student problem (I’ve been to faculty meetings). It’s a human problem. But I’m a college instructor, and so classrooms have become my sites of technological resistance and rebellion. It was time for me to usher in an era of digital death, at least for three 50-minute stretches a week.

After four years of teaching, I could not bear to look at one more student smiling at his or her crotch — the universally preferred location to keep one’s phone for “surreptitious” texting. (Note to students: If you’re smiling in that direction, your attempts at stealth are going to get noticed.)

I could not stand to hear one more refrain of frenzied keyboard tapping. When someone pounds with that much urgency, I can assure you he isn’t transcribing what I’m saying.

But as each semester came and went, I didn’t have the courage to enact a flat-out ban on technology use. It seemed antiquarian, technophobic, selfish, dictatorial. Besides, as a college instructor, wasn’t I supposed to help students maneuver through distractions without exiling problem devices? Wasn’t college supposed to prepare students for the real world and its distractions?

But then I read the manifesto of Clay Shirky, a New York University professor, on why he was asking his students to put away their connected devices. And I thought, why not? After all, a college classroom is not the real world. At its best, it’s a cocoon that allows its residents to try out new ideas, push boundaries, and stretch into a new sense of self. How can we let the latest cat video disrupt that?

What eventually persuaded me was Professor Shirky’s assertion that these devices are designed to be distracting — to grab, get, and keep our attention on them and away from everything else. If it’s a competition between me and an iPhone, I don’t stand a chance. And, more important, students don’t stand a chance to engage and participate when their phones lure them into the labyrinth of the digital world.

So I followed in Shirky’s footsteps and those of others: Henceforth, in my classroom, all phones, computers, and tablets had to remain zipped in backpacks. I was surprised when students accepted this new rule. Maybe they welcomed a break from the devices that pull them every which way. But I can’t report that all students obeyed the rule at all times. Even I found myself sneaking in glances at my phone to see if my daughter’s day-care provider had called. But that was OK, because violations were rare and did not compromise my goal of creating an environment in which students are not shackled to their devices.

This new normal meant students would daydream when they finished an assignment early. I had almost forgotten what it was like to gaze upon a group of people whose minds were allowed to wander freely, pencils tapping against desks. Imagine that! During class downtime, students opened books, played with Silly Putty, and just plain stared straight ahead.

They were allowed to be bored, and I was thrilled. Who knows what organic, stream-of-conscious highway their neurons were traveling down? I hope it was as beautiful as it looked.

At the end of the semester, I asked students how the ban worked for them. Their answer was practical: The early-morning hour made the ban easier, since they didn’t expect any urgent texts when many friends were still tucked in bed. Timing is everything, I suppose.

I’ve come to realize that the only way forward is to extract the problem from its root, by physically disconnecting the device from the hand. The devices fared fine for 50 minutes in a backpack. Afternoon classes, as students emerge into the prime of their digital day, might prove to be a greater challenge, but I think it’s one worth tackling for the calm that descends on a tech-free class.

For me it was lovely to coexist in a space a few times each week where we relied on earlier technological forms: those of the mind. Pings be damned.

What happens to my late husband’s digital life now he’s gone

What happens to my late husband’s digital life now he’s gone

nyctwigg: Ah, there you are; a Skype username you created while working in New York for a month. And here I am, trying to call someone yet absent-mindedly pulling up your profile. In the tiny square picture icon, you are there in your blue T-shirt, leaning over the table and smiling at the camera. Next to your name it says, “Hear me now”.

That drove me mad; you’d sit there and repeat, “Hear me now? Hear me now?” A deliberately annoying mantra, because you knew I could hear you perfectly well. I would hang up and redial to a laughing you and we’d catch up, but today I sit and stare, wishing I could conjure up that annoying voice again. Even just once.

I press the little video camera icon to see if I can get through. But it doesn’t even give me the satisfaction of ringing. Instead the screen says “ended” and the call hangs itself up. Guess that’s fair. That’s when I realise it says “offline”. “nyctwigg offline”. Also fair. I should delete your account … and your phone number, email address and all sorts of other aspects of your online life. I sit and wonder if other people you were connected to have deleted your profile. And I stare out the window wondering if I should try to call you again.

My husband, Iain, and I met at school when we were 17, dated in the sixth form, went our separate ways at university, then got back together and married in a flurry of excitement in 2008. Iain worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office so we lived, worked and adventured together for seven years in Delhi and Geneva. In October 2013, Iain was diagnosed with a brain tumour, and on 7 December 2014, he died in our bed at home. On that morning, my husband, our hoped for family and my future roadmap of work and travel for the next 40 years, all vanished in one shuddering breath. We were both 33.

Six months along this single-track pathway, I’m repeatedly aware I have to rebuild and reshape my life – a life I can’t remember distinct from Iain. If your partner dies, a lot of admin also comes your way. And, these days, people die a digital death alongside their physical one, which creates a whole new world of admin that didn’t pass the radar of grieving widows 50 years ago. Those 20th-century widows would have had a box of love letters and a few hard copy photos; I have Facebook messages, professional videos on YouTube, personal videos on my iPhone, email histories, recorded Skype chats, WhatsApp conversations, text messages and digital photos – photos galore. And all this from a marriage with someone who never really liked spending time online. He set out his stall at 18 announcing that he wouldn’t be getting a mobile phone because they “seem pretty annoying, I doubt they’ll catch on”.

I’ve found at least one blog that tries to make sense of it all. The Digital Beyond, which offers a “go-to source for archival, cultural, legal and technical insights, to help you predict and plan for the future of your online content”. Along with “scatter tubes” – tubes with a perforated lid for transporting and scattering ashes – and bespoke jewellery made from ashes, it’s another blossoming industry I never knew existed.

The blog lists 54 online companies that deal specifically with aspects of dying or, more commonly, the legacy of memories online. I’m slightly spooked by the number of websites that help you send posthumous messages to your friends and relatives. ToLovedOnes, for example, will send letters after your death, calculating the dates they are posted “with 95% accuracy from public records”. Which just leaves me worrying about the 5% of people who receive the letters when their relative is still alive.

Knotify.me, meanwhile, is a free app that answers the question you never knew you had; “What happens to all my online accounts if I get amnesia, Alzheimer’s or if I leave this world?” It helps you set future notifications for your family or yourself, so “nothing of your digital life will be wasted”. Remembered Voices lets you record your voice and play it back to people after you’ve died, Cirrus Legacy stores digital assets in a single place online, so your executor can access them easily. That would have been helpful, in fact. Terry Pratchett was in the know – his recent death was announced in a series of tweets from his own account.

Just as we’re playing catch up with technology, the technology developers themselves are in the same position. Dying, understandably, didn’t feature highly in Facebook’s early risk registers. Which might be why it was in trouble recently for locking a grieving mother out of her teenage daughter’s Facebook account, despite having her daughter’s permission to use it.

When someone dies, Facebook tends to “memorialise” their account – freeze them so they can be viewed, but providing no access to past messages. I read that and panicked: I didn’t want that to happen, so grabbed my laptop and logged in urgently as Iain. Once in though, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do – it didn’t feel right reading personal messages to and from other people. They weren’t for me. If he’d left a box of letters, would I have read those? People store important letters, but online messages are kept just because we don’t press delete. Should I read his emails? I didn’t. But I read and reread our text message conversations, which lifted me up so high it felt like we were actually chatting. Then when I got to the end and there were no more, it was a bad, long fall from there. So I decided memorialising was OK.

Facebook also offended a fair number of bereaved people with its Year in Review clips, in which photographs that attracted the most comments were automatically selected to reappear on your timeline under the words “Here’s what your year looked like”. The problem was that for some, these were pictures of dead loved ones. And, however comforting photos and associated memories can be, out of the blue and at the wrong moment on your computer screen they can cause havoc if you are grieving.

The bereaved: an oversensitive minority population, you may think, but the numbers involved are bigger than you may realise. Based on Facebook’s growth rate, and the age breakdown of its users over time, probably 10 to 20 million people who created Facebook profiles have since died. Even if Facebook closed registration tomorrow, the number of deaths per year will continue to grow for decades, as the 2000-2020 school generations grow old. And the peak? Nasa physicist turned full-time cartoonist Randall Munroe estimates that if Facebook falls out of favour with young generations, as many social media sites do, the point at which there will be more users who have died than are living is around 2060. And if Facebook continues to thrive, that’s more like 2130.

Caroline and Iain in 1999, when they were still at school.
Caroline and Iain in 1999, when they were still at school.

In the hours and immediate few days after Iain died, I turned to the memorial website built overnight by a kind colleague to celebrate my man’s life. A bewildered and floundering group of Iain’s closest friends and family immersed ourselves in a world of photos and memories and words and purpose. Three days later, all within half an hour, the website went live, an email to the worldwide Foreign and Commonwealth Office workforce went out and I put a “global announcement” on Facebook. “Informing friends of the deceased”, 21st-century style. I changed my profile to black, shut my laptop and left the house; the internet did its thing – with speed, breadth and a rush of wildfire.

I hadn’t anticipated the outpouring of love from around the world. Within minutes there were messages from Japan, Pakistan, Chile … the inhabitants of our interconnected world, suddenly spinning inwards to be connected by shock and grief, then spinning out again to their own physical pockets around the world.

Today, one of the things I cherish most is an eight-second video of Iain telling me he loves me. There’s something about seeing him as if in real life and hearing his voice, that is just quite incredible. The only downside is that it’s far too short. And it’s all I’m going to get now. I wish I had more videos – they are by far the hardest thing to look at right now, but I sense that one day they will be some of the most precious things I have.

Otherwise a huge comfort and unity online has come from a network for younger people whose partners have died – Way (Widowed and Young). In the past month, I’ve got to know some of the 1,500 people in that group by seeing their biggest fears, their “smallest” achievements, their practical worries and their rallying strength posted online in a closed group. A sub-set of our society, normal people living normal lives that suddenly know tragedy and are thrust together in their confusion and loneliness and upset.

I don’t use the rest of Facebook so much now – I posted a positive few things early on and hadn’t expected so many instantaneous likes and messages saying I was “amazing”. It was too surreal to be told that when you’re barely able to hold a conversation in real life, and it made me feel strange. I’m certainly not going to start covering Facebook with the reality of the new world I have found myself living in since Iain’s death – people don’t go there to see the truth if it’s not pretty.

So, after I put my phone aside each evening and disconnect myself from my online communities, the moment just after my head hits the pillow is when the reality of my sadness becomes so stark. The moment I go from being exhausted to somehow feeling wide awake, when I feel so, so solo. I look over at Iain’s side of the bed and just his picture grins back at me. I poke my toe over the cold sheet and I wonder how it can be that he was right there, and now he’s not. I think about friends in their homes, with their favourite people breathing quietly beside them. I think of people listening out for babies in other rooms. For their children stirring. I want to say, “Imagine none of those people are in your house now, imagine that silence. And imagine it’s for always.” That’s how alone it feels.

As I lie there I wonder, have I fallen off the end of the world? I’ve discovered that when you cry while you’re lying on your back, your tears slide into your ears, which fill up and feel strange. I shake my head. And at some point I fall asleep. And then I wake up too early and feel the same.

As I take the commuter train, I look at everyone on their smartphones. I imagine there are others also scrolling through pictures of their families, just as I am with photos of Iain. I see a message from a lady, a new friend, whose husband also died of a brain tumour a few days before Iain – we’ve never met but have shared such a similarly traumatic story that we’re linked to each other now. As I go to reply, I’m aware that we’d never have connected if this had been 1915, not 2015.

Caroline Twigg has written a book to help bereaved children. Find out more at http://kck.st/1GL3UzI where she is raising money to illustrate and publish it