Second, while it is crucial to identify the digital asset’s location and accessibility, digital asset ownership rights, copyrights, and accessibility, digital asset ownership rights, copyrights, and contractual rights are often less clear than traditional tangible property because the digital assets are often stored, created, and managed by a third party. Ownership rights of digital assets stored with third parties are not always as hereditary in character because “the terms of the contract between online service providers and account holders . . . govern the ownership and inheritability of ‘digital assets.’”24 To determine the ownership rights of a digital asset, one must examine the user’s property rights relative to those of the third-party online service provider who is storing managing, and protecting the digital asset. In the majority of instances, the third party provider will own the property rights to the account.
For example, in the case of Facebook, an account is the property of the company, and not the individual end user.26 However, at the same time, personal information stored on the account, such as pictures, social media postings, status updates, and other similarly situated data, can be protected by copyright law and constitute a decedent’s intellectual property. Problems arise when a beneficiary wishes to obtain access to a digital asset, but the asset is located in an account where the beneficiary does not have immediate access. If the third-party provider closes the decedent’s account and deletes any data stored on the account, irreplaceable digital property—which may contain pecuniary and sentimental value—could be lost forever. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the third party has any duties to preserve these digital assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries. Depending on the type of digital asset and service provider storing the digital assets, ownership rights and the legal ability to access digital assets may vary significantly.
For instance, a comparison between three similar email service providers shows that service provider contracts may differ significantly in respect to how they treat a decedent’s digital content. Yahoo!, pursuant to the “No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability” clause of its terms and conditions, will permanently delete contents of the user’s account upon the user’s death. Google’s policy differs slightly, stating that in some “rare cases” it may provide a deceased user’s content to an authorized representative. Hotmail/Outlook states that it will provide a copy of email messages, contact lists, attachments, and other content after proper authentication of ownership. Social media site terms and conditions may also vary. Ultimately, digital assets held or stored by online service providers will be subject to the terms of the service contract, binding the account holder and the service provider. Disputes pertaining to the digital asset ownership in reference to online accounts are settled by courts construing the terms and conditions of the contract of the third-party online provider through the application of state law.