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What Happens to Your E-books When You Die?

Most digital content can't be passed on to heirs

By now, even the Luddites among us have taken the plunge into e-books, online videos and digital music. But here's something that few think about when clicking the "buy" button on their computer or mobile device: What happens to your digital books, videos and music when you pass on?

See also: 5 reasons to pick up an e-book reader.

We're not the only ones asking: Recent reports indicated that actor Bruce Willis was considering taking legal action against Apple to make sure he could pass on his digital music collection to his children. The story has seemingly been debunked on Twitter by Willis' girlfriend, but the report did get consumers thinking more about what control they have over their digital purchases after they die.

books that have been electronic downloads may not be included as part of your estate because electronic books are licensed, not owned- a digital reader on a shelf with other books

With most digital content, your purchase simply gives you a license to use the books or music. — Photo by Bix Burkhart/Getty Images

So here's the basic scoop: When you own physical books, CDs or DVDs, those items become part of your estate that can be left to your heirs. These are tangible goods that can be owned, sold and passed on. A similar transfer of ownership, however, does not apply to your collection of Kindle or iTunes e-books or the many digital music albums, movies, TV shows and videos that you may have stored on your computer, mobile device or the cloud. What many people don't realize is that with most digital content, you don't actually own the content when you buy it. Instead, your purchase simply gives you a license to use the books or music.

What is a "licensing agreement"?

Because the Amazon license agreement is typical of the digital content industry, a close look at the way this online retailer licenses Kindle content provides a good example of how the process works. Amazon states that digital content for the Kindle is "licensed, not sold, to you by the Content Provider." The agreement further stipulates that "you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Digital Content or any portion of it to any third party."

In short, that means Kindle content can't be resold or left to an heir — it cannot even be given away or donated. Under the terms of the agreement, Kindle content can not be transferred to another person in any way.

Amazon is simply one example. Similar restrictions apply when shopping at the Apple iTunes store, Barnes & Noble and other online sellers of e-books, digital music and movies. Each company licenses the content to the purchaser rather than selling it outright. All of the licensing agreements are similarly slanted toward the company's rights — giving the consumer's rights little emphasis.

None of the online stores that offer digital content has a clause regarding how to transfer media upon the death of the owner. Currently, you cannot legally do so. Intellectual property laws that govern digital assets are archaic. However, most legal experts expect them to be reexamined in the future.

What can I pass on to my heirs and how do I do it?

For now, it's wise to make a backup copy of any e-books, videos and digital music that are not protected by Digital Rights Management software that prevents copies from being made.

Warning: Most e-books have DRM protection built in, but many music files do not. If you want to preserve your music, copy the files to a hard drive or thumb drive — any place your heirs will be able to easily access.

If it's important to you to pass on your digital content, make sure that your heirs know what devices and content you own and give them access to your account information, including passwords. In many cases, families are already sharing digital devices, e-books, movies and music by using the same account. After the death of the account holder, many simply keep using that account. Until the legal system catches up with technology and offers clearer guidelines on ownership and transference of digital content, this may be the simplest and best way to handle this situation.

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