Digital Detritus: What Will Happen to Your Electronic Files When You’re Gone?

04 Apr 2013

In the old days, genealogists have file cabinets and boxes bulging with notes, photocopies, and other paper. Our bookshelves were crammed so full of books there was no available space. They usually overflowed onto the floor nearby. As twenty-first century genealogists, our files are no longer just paper. Nor are they just limited to our computers. Our iPads (or other tablets), mobile phones, and other electronic devices are bulging with files and applications. Music, movies, e-books, and more are crammed into every available memory space or the cloud.  Last year, consumers spent $4.5 billion on these materials.

Unfortunately, as in many instances, the law is lagging far behind reality. A recent article by Katy Steinmetz in Time magazine brought this issue to light. In “From Here to E-ternity: What Happens to Your Virtual Things When You’re Gone?” (181 [2013], no. 5: 54–55, available online to subscribers at, Steinmetz discusses the current status of the law surrounding your digital assets (the electronic books, movies, music, software, etc., that you purchased in your lifetime).



In times past, the things were much easier. You bought tangible items: books, record albums, CDs,  videotapes, DVDs, etc.). At your death you are free to dispose of these items in any way you like. You can donate them, leave them to love ones, have them sold, or throw them in the trash. In today’s digital world, however, things are not that cut and dried.

Digital assets are not as easily distributed. Part of the problem is the Cloud. As more and more of these items live in the cloud, it gets more difficult. Laws have not kept up with this radical new concept, and you (and your heirs) can be in for a rude awakening.

25% of books sold in America today are e-books. Think of how many you have purchased for your genealogical research. The problem is that many of these are actually licensed, not sold to you as they were in the past. Because they are licensed, they are in a grey area in terms of whether they can be transferred to someone else after your death.

Apple’s iTunes has billions of dollars in sales every year. Thousands of music recordings, television shows, movies, and more are downloaded every day. Apple, however, has no policy on whether your iTunes collection can be willed or transferred to someone else.

Flickr is one of the largest photo sharing sites around, with more than 6 billion pictures uploaded to the site so far. The company is now owned by Yahoo, whose policy is that if you leave written consent and your password, your materials can be transferred to your survivors. In the absence of those, however, your heirs can only request that the account and its contents be permanently deleted.

Vudu is another seller of movies and television shows, as well as converting DVDs to digital movies. The company’s official policy at the moment does not allow any of your content to be transferred to your heirs.

This is a complex and changing area. You should check with your attorney about what you can do with your digital assets, and how you can best preserve them and leave them for your heirs.