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Digital assets

Digital assets – What happens to these when you die?

Digital assets

As someone who has grown up in the digital age, a large portion of my life is contained virtually. I have accounts with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, YouTube, Amazon… and the list goes on. You name it, I’ve got it.

Whilst it’s relatively normal for the younger generation to have most of their life on a virtual platform, there has been an overwhelming increase in the number of internet users aged 75 and over embracing social media, with 41% having a social media profile in 2016, compared to 19% in 2015. This surge in digital activity poses some serious questions. This blog will deal with one of them: What happens to my digital assets when I die?

What are digital assets?

Our possessions are becoming more digitised which creates a new category of personal assets – digital assets. Digital assets can be anything that isn’t in a tangible, physical form. These can include:

  • Email accounts (eg Gmail, Outlook, Hotmail)
  • Subscription services (eg Netflix, Amazon, Spotify)
  • Music and video assets
  • Pictures and document storages (eg Google Drive, cloud storage)
  • Gaming accounts and profiles
  • Social media content (eg Facebook, Twitter)

How does the law deal with digital assets on death?

The law on digital assets in the UK is practically non-existent. Wills & probate law was not written to deal with the possible advances in technology and only really considers physical assets and property.

As there is no substantive UK law dealing with digital assets, people don’t know how to handle these when writing their will. It’s being left to the providers of digital content to decide what they will allow consumers to do with their digital assets when they buy or share things online. As many of these digital providers are US companies, many have to rely on US law and the terms and conditions of the service.

Some terms and conditions for common online companies

Facebook

Statistics from Ofcom show that 95% of social media users have a profile or account with Facebook in 2017. As part of Facebook’s terms and conditions, users are not allowed to share their usernames and passwords, let anyone else access their account or even transfer their account to anyone. However, Facebook offers a service to ‘memorialise’ accounts. Memorialised accounts allow for friends and family to gather and share memories after a person has passed away, leaving the account available for people known to the deceased to see but will not come up in public searches.

Instagram

Instagram has a policy in their privacy statement which states that if an Instagram user dies, their relatives should contact Instagram to request either the deactivation and deletion of their account or, similar to Facebook, to ‘memorialise’ the account.

Twitter

Twitter’s policy is to never provide account access to anyone regardless of their relationship to the deceased. Twitter requires persons who are authorised to act on behalf of the deceased, such as an executor, to contact Twitter to remove or deactivate the deceased’s account.

Google

Google has a pragmatic approach to dealing with a deceased’s account. They have an ‘Inactive Account Manager’ where people can set up what should happen to all their digital information and who should have access to it after the account holder has died. Google encourages forward planning and for users to set out their wishes, similar to that in a will.

Apple

Apple’s policy is extremely vague. Not only do they not have a policy on what people should do with their assets on death, many of Apple’s products are on a subscription or paid service. Their iCloud storage system has a ‘No Right of Survivorship’ policy whereby you agree that your account is non-transferable and any rights to your Apple ID or content within your account terminate when you die.

Regarding music and films, the consumer is actually leasing the content and not buying it. Purchasing a film or song through iTunes grants you a licence to use the film or song and as the licence is non-transferable, anything in your iTunes library is also non-transferable.

Who owns the digital assets?

Some assets are not actually owned by the individual, as we have seen with music downloaded on iTunes. The user is granted a licence to use the service. The same is also provided for when you upload pictures or content to social media. Some social media websites grant licences or have licences granted to them or state in their terms and conditions that they own the content you upload. Therefore it’s important to check the service provider’s terms and conditions.

What you should be doing

There are potential difficulties when trying to leave digital assets to loved ones as it’s a relatively new phenomenon, however, the issue becomes more common as we enter the age of digital innovation. Follow some easy steps to make sure you’re prepared for the digital afterlife and create you Last will and testament.

Digital assets

Digital assets

Alan Cheung

Alan Cheung

Paralegal at Rocket Lawyer
Alan is a paralegal at Rocket Lawyer UK. He has a law degree from the University of Westminster and has recently graduated from the Legal Practice Course at BPP Law School. He is passionate about employment law and intellectual property and strongly believes in accessible and affordable legal services.
Alan Cheung

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