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What Will Happen to My Digital Assets When I Die?

These days, virtually all of us have digital assets; Our expensive iTunes library, for example, or our Facebook feeds and Instagram photos. What will happen to these when we die?

Jill Waddington, head of Wills & Probate at Ridley & Hall, says, “When it comes to content that is stored online, it can be quite tricky to know who owns what. Take a look at our handy table of some of the most common types of digital assets to find out what happens to them when the account holder dies.”

Service provider Who owns what? What happens on death?
Yahoo! (including Flickr) Copyright in content submitted or made available is retained by the account holder. Yahoo! has license for photos, graphics, audio and video submitted. Yahoo! has worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive licence to use, distribute, reproduce, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works and publicly perform or display user content. Yahoo!’s account deletion policy provides for accounts that are inactive for 12 months to be de-activated after which the account may be deleted by Yahoo!. Once deleted Yahoo! cannot re-activate the account or retrieve information stored on it. On receiving a copy of the death certificate Yahoo! may terminate the account and delete all content permanently. n most cases email account contents are deleted after 9 months of inactivity, and the account itself is deleted after an additional 3 months; for a total of one year. Once that happens, we are unable to recover any of the data from the account.
Microsoft Copyright in content submitted or made available is retained by the account holder. If the account is cancelled or terminated the users licence to use Microsoft software ends and content may be deleted. There is no obligation to return content to the account holder. The account holder is advised to make copies of content. In most cases, email account contents are deleted after nine months of inactivity, and the account itself is deleted three months after that. Microsoft is unable to recover any data from the account after this 12 month period. Microsoft will not provide families with passwords or give them control of the account but, on production of a death certificate and on verification of the identity of the claimant, Microsoft’s next of kin service will provide copies of the deceased’s emails stored on disc.
Facebook Copyright in content submitted or made available is retained by the account holder. Facebook has a worldwide, royalty-free, non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable licence to use any IP content posted or in connection with Facebook. This licence is ended when the account holder deletes any content that contains IP or if the account is terminated unless the content is shared with others. Since 2009, Facebook has allowed accounts to be memorialised so that family and friends can continue to post comments and photos on a deceased account holder’s timeline. Logging into or editing a memorialised account is not permitted. This means that hostile or malicious posts cannot be taken down once posted. Facebook argues that allowing a memorialised account to be edited after death might breach US wiretapping, computer trespass laws and on-line impersonation laws. Family members whose identity has been verified by Facebook can request that the deceased’s account is deleted.
Google (including YouTube) Copyright in content submitted or made available is retained by the account holder. Google has worldwide licence to store, host, reproduce, modify, create derivative works, communicate, publish, perform, display and distribute content for the duration of the contract. Google’s Inactive Account Manager has been available since April 2013. This allows account holders to decide how they want to deal with stored data after they have died. The facility enables an account holder to select persons to be notified when Google de-activates the account (up to 10 people). The account holder can also choose when the account will end. This can be after six months, 12 months or another specified period of inactivity in the account. After the selected period has elapsed Google checks for traces of on-line presence and waits for a month before sending an alert by text and email to the nominated persons. Google then provides links to allow “beneficiaries” to download images and emails. Alternatively, account holders can instruct Google to delete their account immediately.If an account holder has not used the Inactive Account Manager facility, his personal representatives may not be able to gain access to the deceased’s account without a court order.
Apple/iTunes Licence only. No rights to reproduce content. The account holder only has a licence to use MP3 files. Ownership stays with Apple. Copies can be made on up to 5 computers while the account holder is alive. The licence to listen to MP3 files terminates on death. Access to Apple devices will be denied and the device locked without the correct Apple ID and password. Account holders are prohibited from passing on details of ID and passwords to others.
Apple/iCloud Copyright in content submitted or made available is retained by the account holder. Apple retains ownership of Apple ID, email addresses, domain names or similar resources used by the account holder in connection with the service. iCloud accounts are personal to the account holder and cannot be transferred on death. On receipt of a copy of a death certificate the account may be terminated and all content deleted.
Twitter Copyright in content submitted or made available is retained by the account holder. Twitter is granted a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free licence (with the right to sub-license) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute content in any and all media or distribution methods. Twitter accounts terminate automatically on death. On production of a death certificate and verification of the personal representatives’ identity, Twitter will deactivate the deceased’s account. Twitter will remove imagery of deceased individuals in certain circumstances. Twitter may not be able to comply with all requests from family to delete images if their newsworthiness means that this would not be in the public interest.
Instagram Copyright in content submitted or made available is retained by the account holder. Instagram is granted a non-exclusive and royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide licence to use content posted. Instagram accounts terminate automatically on death. Instagram accounts are removed when the account holder dies. Log in information is not provided to third parties. Personal representatives should submit a report to Instagram with a copy of the death certificate and proof (such as a grant of probate) of authority to act as the deceased’s lawful representative.
PayPal (part of Ebay Inc) Balances held in an account belong to the account holder. Personal representatives must send details of the account holder, a copy of the death certificate, a copy of the will or grant of probate showing authority to act as the deceased’s lawful representative, and a photo verifying the identity of the personal representative. Following approval, the account will be closed. If there are funds in the PayPal account, a cheque will be issued in the account holder’s name. Funds unclaimed by personal representatives are deposited in a trust account in Luxembourg.


Ridley & Hall has an expert Wills & Probate team who can offer specialist legal advice on all aspects of the administration of estates. For further information, please call us on 01484 538421.



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