Photo: Getty Images / Kevin Winter
A strange rumour making the rounds of cyberspace during the first week of September captivated us for 15 minutes: actor Bruce Willis, angered over the idea that he would not someday be able to leave his valuable iTunes recordings collection to his oddly-named three daughters Rumer, Scout, and Tallulah, was said to be considering suing Apple.Willis’s wife Emma Heming-Willis squelched the rumour via Twitter on September 3, tweeting to another user who’d recommended Willis simply give the girls his password, “It’s not a true story.”
Even once the story was put to rest, the barrage of media attention that followed was fascinating: Do we really not have the right to bequeath our valuable digital music libraries to our heirs? And what happens to our online accounts after we die?
Music Remains Tied to Its Buyer’s Computer
“Music in physical formats has always been seen as an asset to be handed down the line,” wrote Jonny Evans in an article on ComputerWorld’s website. “Why should this be any different when it comes to music held in digital formats?”
But music in physical formats only belongs to us in those formats, and only under the licence we agree to when we click the “I agree” box before every purchase on iTunes, Amazon, etc. “Owning an album never bestowed unlimited rights,” points out intellectual property lawyer Jess Collen in a piece he contributed recently to Forbes. “It is not as if record buyers were ever free to broadcast or reuse the content of those albums. They were just for listening, not unlike the music you have now.”
The short answer to Willis’s imaginary complaint is to use Apple’s “sharing” service, which allows the purchaser of a song to authorise up to five other computers – Macs or PCs – to play the song.
The bad news is this only works on actual computers. “An iPod, iPhone, iPad, or Apple TV doesn’t count as a computer,” according to Apple’s help page about the subject of authorization. “You can authorise or deauthorize a computer at any time,” the page notes. “Be sure to deauthorize a computer before you sell it or give it away.”
If you don’t deauthorize your computer, it would still play all your music for your heirs, assuming you don’t lock the computer down with a password they don’t know. So while you may not be able to transfer ownership of the tunes themselves, nothing stops you from leaving the whole computer to your kids.
Password May Be Key to the Kingdom
What of the Twitter user’s suggestion to Heming-Willis that her husband leave his password behind? This issue comes up with other social media accounts as well: Closing those accounts once someone has died can be a real headache. “The main issues are whether the social media host will give you access to the account or even allow you to close the account without legal documentation,” says Collen.
If you know the password to the account of a deceased person, it’s possible to get access and also to close it, but know that you may be violating the service’s terms of service. “Technically, that may be a violation of the policy – logging in under another’s name – but pragmatically, that is a solution which may people use,” Collen admits.
“Headache” does not begin to describe the pain you’ll go through if your loved one was a social media junkie: You have your work cut out for you when shutting down all those accounts. “Different companies have different policies,” points out Collen. “Some will basically take your word for it that a user or owner has passed away. Almost all will require a letter or form. Some require a death certificate or other legal proof.”
One service is designed to help heirs deal with the different requirements of closing social media accounts for those who have passed on: www.deceasedaccount.com. “It seems like they do their homework,” Collen says of the site, “but I would treat it more as a good resource than the ‘final word’ – no pun intended – on the subject.”
Making provisions for your digital music collection or social media accounts after you die is an important part of your estate plan. You can locate an estate planning lawyer who can answer your questions and help you make arrangements on Lawyers.com.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.