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Probate and Estate Litigation Blog

Rumors of suit over digital music inheritance spawn chat storm

Twin Cities music lovers may have felt inspired to root for Bruce Willis in the role of hero dad upon hearing rumors that the action star recently announced his intention to sue Apple in order to be able to include his iTunes library in his daughters' inheritance. The story certainly piqued the interest of every reader familiar with the fairly substantial investment that can go into amassing a respectable digital music library.

Although it appears that the story amounts to little more than rumor, the idea may have some merit in the interest of avoiding a future will contest over the inheritability of digital assets. As acquisition of creative property becomes increasingly reliant on electronic media, traditional notions of ownership are struggling to keep pace.

Few people think twice about the ability to pass on a book collection or a set of classic vinyl records to heirs, but the lines get blurred when it comes to intellectual property that arguably has no value inherent in its physical form. While the value of a single digital music file may be legitimately limited to the right to enjoy its contents, the question arises of whether a significant investment into building a collection of files alters the character of ownership.

Many purchase agreements for digital music files have been generally understood to create what amounts to a non-transferable lease of the right to possess the file and enjoy the music it contains. In that case, any claim to inheritance rights would seem likely to fail. Some tech insiders note, however, that current app store terms and conditions make no reference to non-transferability.

Even if the story about the actor's plans to file suit is pure gossip, it raises issues that will have to be addressed as upcoming generations think about the nature of the estate they hope to pass on to loved ones. Ultimately, we will have to decide the scope of rights that vest in our "ownership" of purchased digital media, social media accounts and even the virtual assets of online game worlds.

Source: Game & Guide, "Bruce Willis Suing Apple for Digital Inheritance Story False?" Sept. 4, 2012

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