Yesterday, a rumor started circulating that the actor Bruce Willis was getting ready to sue Apple over the rights to his digital music collection. The rumor was short-lived; in a matter of hours his wife denied it.

Having recently lost my sister and having used words of hers related to what should happen to your digital stuff when you die—and also having spent a lot of time over the years thinking about digital rights management and the media business—this struck a nerve. What is supposed to happen to your digital things when you die?

In one sense, this is an incredibly easy question to answer; the disposition of goods should be left to the discretion of whoever owns them. But in the digital world, ownership is a nebulous term. Forget platitudes like “possession is nine tenths of the law”; nobody can even agree on what “possession” means!

Let’s leave privacy and automatic self destruction out of the conversation. The bottom line, at least for the moment, is “rights”—mostly, copyrights.

But if we can agree that when someone creates “art” that it should belong to them, we’re left with the question of what your rights are when you take possession of a copy of that art—even, and especially, when you do so legally. You own the media that the art is “stored on”, but you don’t own the art unless you negotiated that right, and when you download music from iTunes, Google, or anywhere else you assent to the fact that you’ve done no such thing.

This is where the Bruce Willis story came from. It seems that in the iTunes terms of service there’s language that says that when you die your iTunes library is no longer licensed. Whatever heir inherits the computer on which you store your music has no right to use it.

Imagine if you inherited an album or a CD, but were obligated to destroy it because the person who’d bought and left it to you had no rights to do so. Ridiculous, of course, and it would amount to the same thing.

Need help with your Intellectual Property Management? Surprise!

This issue isn’t limited to Apple/iTunes, and it isn’t limited to music. Digital Books are entering the rights management fray. If you want to read magazines online you need to contend with arcane rules there, too. And underneath all of this, I’m thinking about the RIAA’s position that if your “legal storage provider” screws up, you lose all your rights to the media they were storing for you.

Maybe Neil Young and Elvis Costello had it right: digital media piracy isn’t bad, it’s just the new radio.

And maybe we’ll get lucky and his wife was wrong, too. Hey, Bruce Willis: want help pursuing that lawsuit?

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