Personal Injury, Probate, Employment, & Complex Litigation


Inheritance in a Digital Only Future

As our culture is moving toward the digital future, less and less of us own physical media. Instead of buying physical CDs, most people buy their music via iTunes or other digital distribution platforms. While that same digital only economy has not completely taken ahold of either the home motion picture market or video game market, it is certainly coming. As such, it seems to be worthwhile to investigate what effect, if any, this has on transferring rights to access this media at death.

The largest and most successful digital distribution of video games is the Valve owned Steam Store. This is an online store front that allows people to buy computer games. However, upon close look of the user agreement you enter into by making a Steam account, it is clear that you do not own any of the games you buy, instead, you merely own a revocable license to use the software.

While this is specific to Steam, most digital distributors use similar language and restrictions. In fact, most of the physical media you “own” is actually just a physical representation of the license that comes with the media. This is why you cannot take media and reproduce it for commercial gain, you are not the owner of the media.

However, because physical media cannot just be revoked at any moment, you can transfer all of it at the time of your death without a problem. That is not true with digital media. The reason is because most digital distributors require you to run their software in order to access the media and therefore, they can control your access to your licenses.

As a result, whether you can transfer your digital media collection is dependent upon the license you received at purchase. Steam’s user agreement does not allow any transfer of an account at any time without prior permission from Valve. Additionally, if you try to transfer your account to someone else without permission, Valve may end your license agreement, and you would thereby lose all of the games you have purchased.

While it is likely that media collections will not make up the bulk of a person’s estate, it is disheartening to see that the inevitable march towards a digital only future puts determination of the public’s ownership of the products they buy up private companies’ decision making.

Again, each digital distribution platform has a specific user agreement, so if you are concerned about your ability to transfer media to your loved ones, the answer will likely be found in the user agreement.