What happens to your purchased digital movies, music and e-books when you die?

Dec 4, 2023, 10:44 PM | Updated: Dec 5, 2023, 6:34 am

HOOPER, Weber County — Blu-rays, CDs, books, vinyl – these are all physical media formats we can hold in our grubby, little mitts.

Besides being entertained by the media they contain we can do what we want with them: Use them to prop open doors or windows. Turn them into wall clocks. And when we go, they can be inherited by someone else.

But with digital entertainment, Jared Berrett is finding the story is different.

A tale of two users and one account

“So, my mother has a Kindle Fire that she uses,” Berrett said. “She has books on her Kindle – dozens and dozens of books.”

The Fire Tablet was a gift to Berrett’s mother, Nancy, from his father, Vic.

“My mother uses the same account as he did, so they didn’t have to buy an extra account for books,” he said.

Vic died nearly five years ago, but his widow, Nancy, kept using the account to buy and read e-books. And everything went well, until her tablet died.

“I purchased a new tablet for her, Fire Tablet 10,” said Jared Berrett.

When he tried to set up that tablet with his dad’s account info, Amazon sent a one-time passcode to his dad’s old phone – a phone no one has anymore.

“I couldn’t verify the code,” he said. “I could not get into the tablet.”

Berrett contacted Amazon. He says a rep told him his only option was to start a new account, which would mean losing access to his dad’s old account.

Jared Berrett shares his frustration that digital content purchased under his late father’s Amazon account, can’t be accessed by his mother. (Eddie Collins, KSL)

“They’re family books – not just his books. But she can’t read them ever again,” said Jared Barrett.

And that’s an expensive loss. The value of all the digital media on the old account?

“I’d ballpark $1,500. It’s a lot of money,” he said.

Who owns the actual digital media file?

“They’re going to control the terms and conditions and how they want,” said estate planning attorney Britten Hepworth. “It’s not like we have a magic wand, where we can say, ‘Hey, here’s how we get around these harsh user agreements.’”

“You’re just buying a license to use the asset in accordance with your user agreement,” Hepworth said. “Generally, the (agreements) that I’ve kind of pulled up and looked at just says it’s going to last for the term of the person’s life.”

In many cases, those licenses are tied to the individual who bought the digital content. The rights to use that content are not transferable.

We checked the Amazon Kindle Store terms. It states, “you may not sell, rent, lease, distribute, broadcast, sublicense, or otherwise assign any rights to the Kindle Content or any portion of it to any third party.”

Can you access a deceased loved one’s account?

When Jared Berrett kept his dad’s Amazon account information so his mom could access all those Kindle books, was that copacetic, legally? Yes, and no says Hepworth.

“There’s laws in Utah that say, a fiduciary or a trust, or a trustee… they have legal authority to access a person’s digital accounts,” he said. “A lot of the issues that come up in the estate planning world with digital assets come more down to the specific user agreements, and the institutions under which you buy the digital assets.”

Hepworth says since Amazon’s Kindle Store terms don’t have a mechanism for fiduciaries or trustees, its terms of use will prevail.

Estate planning attorney Britten Hepworth explains to KSL’s Matt Gephardt that in many cases, a digital media platform’s user agreement prevents purchased content from being handed down to heirs. (Winston Armani, KSL)

“You’ve got a user agreement in place that is a valid binding contract between Amazon and the original user,” he said.

Amazon’s terms say your right to use Kindle content lasts “only as long as you remain an active member of the underlying membership or subscription program.”

“That’s not necessarily a violation of our laws,” said Hepworth. “Our laws are more geared towards saying, ‘Hey, in instances where a fiduciary may be able to access, we’re confirming that they have the legal authority to do that.’”

So, where does all this leave Jared Berrett and his mom, Nancy?

Well, we reached out to Amazon’s communications team on their behalf. A spokesperson wrote: “We’re very sorry for this customer’s loss and have reached back out to them directly to assist them. When a customer’s loved one passes away, we have a dedicated team available to provide them with bereavement support.”

Jared Barrett says he indeed heard from Amazon and after all this, he got some unexpected news. He says Amazon is taking steps so that his mom can regain access to the library of her late husband. Now, he hopes others use his experience as a warning.

“We’re kind of in a chokehold,” he said. “It’s on their terms for everything we have. We don’t own it.”

What can you do?

So, is there anything you can do to preserve access to your digital entertainment?

Some platforms allow you to set up family accounts. You still will not own the content, but it’s likely your family’s access to the digital content won’t die with you.

You could also just stick to subscription-based streaming services such as Netflix or Spotify for your digital content.

Another option? Go ahead and re-embrace the old-school CDs, Blu-rays and books that can be handed down.

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What happens to your purchased digital movies, music and e-books when you die?