An expert in intellectual property law has written a paper arguing for a federal law that allows users to determine what happens to their “digital assets” after they die. “Virtually no law regulates what happens to a person’s online existence after his or her death,” author Jason Mazzone, a law professor at the University of Illinois, said in a press release. “[Social media] policies are not likely to reflect the collective interests that exist with respect to copyright law. It’s a little bit like letting the bank decide what to do with your money after you die.”
The paper, titled “Facebook’s Afterlife” and published in the North Carolina Law Review, argues that a federal law is needed to impose some requirements upon social networking sites to give users a degree of control over what happens to their accounts.
As it stands, Facebook leaves a deceased person’s wall intact but all uploaded content is only available on Facebook’s servers. Mazzone thinks Facebook is hoarding the information because “there’s going to be some future value to having all of that content locked away.”
But that information isn’t Facebook’s to keep, Mazzone argues.
“Whoever uploaded the content has a property right that is protected—it’s not extinguished by anything that Facebook does,” he said. “The trouble is how you or your heirs get your hands on that content. The person who has inherited the copyright, who has the ability to control the uses of the work, can’t take advantage of it because it’s locked away in Facebook’s digital vault.”
The solution, according to Mazzone, is requiring social media sites like Facebook to allow users to decide what’s going to happen to their content when they pass.
Mazzone added that it’s “really pretty astonishing” users can’t decide what will happen to their data, and that it’s essential that they be provided the choice “given the sorts of intellectual property and privacy interests that are at stake.”
Facebook told us they have no comment on their future plans for deceased users’ data or Mazzone’s comments on the property rights of users in regards to uploaded content. They did say that “family members can use this form to request that a deceased person’s account be removed from Facebook.”
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