After death, Web ‘assets’ often tangled in cloud


When you die, does your Facebook account die with you? Or that online photo album? What about your iTunes playlist, blogs or tweets? Laws in the United States and elsewhere are vague on the fate of digital rights to online accounts after death, leading to complications and legal wrangling for survivors who want access to the online services of the deceased. Legal experts say it’s unclear who owns what in the Internet “cloud,” and that in some cases the user agreement for email or social networking sites terminates when a person dies. In the case of online photo albums, “those photos are yours and you have a copyright, but the problem is if you upload them to a site like Shutterfly, the property you own is now stuck behind a license,” said Nathan Dosch, a Wisconsin attorney. “The underlying asset is still owned by you but the access terminates on your death. The same can be said about emails.” Gerry Beyer, a professor at Texas Tech University School of Law, said the definition of “digital assets” remains subject to interpretation. A key issue is whether what is in the online accounts is “property” with any value. This leaves open a great potential for litigation, he said. “You could think the last month of tweets from (late British singer) Amy Winehouse would be valuable… what if the company erases it all?” said Beyer. Some accounts may have actual value, such as revenue-producing blogs, while others may have important sentimental value.