Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

Friday, May 9, 2014

Article on Managing Digital Property


James D. Lamm (Gray Plant Mooty), Christina L. Kunz (Professor Emerita, William Mitchell College of Law), Damien A. Riehl (Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi), and Peter John Rademacher (William Mitchell College of Law, J.D. Candidate 2014) recently published an article entitled, The Digital Death Conundrum: How Federal and State Laws Prevent Fiduciaries from Managing Digital Property, 68 U. Miami L. Rev. 385 (Winter 2014).  Provided below is the introduction:

The digital world is a popular place these days. In its fourth quarter of 2012, Facebook reported 618 million daily users. In fiscal year 2012, Google reported 235 million active users across its properties (e.g., Gmail and YouTube); Activision Blizzard estimated over 9.6 million subscribers to World of Warcraft; and the list goes on. The United States's Internet use ranks among the highest--both in number and percentage of population. Members, users, and subscribers (“account holders”) accumulate digital property by uploading photographs, videos, and other data, investing time into profile development, adding written material, and building their own subscribership accounts.

How should this property be managed during the account holders' lives? Upon the account holders' deaths, what should happen to it? How should it be maintained? How should it be distributed? As one author notes, “[M]ore and more of what happens in the [physical] world is also seeping into the [digital] world . . . .” That includes our need for fiduciaries in many aspects of life and death. Every single Internet user will die, many will suffer some form of incapacity, and some will have valuable or significant digital property that needs to be protected and managed. In the physical world, legal mechanisms can address these issues.

Other bodies of law do not impede these mechanisms, which have evolved over hundreds of years, but the digital world is like the “Wild West,” in that its growth has outpaced legal and regulatory efforts. Although federal and state governments have enacted laws to control aspects of the digital world, some of these laws predate the World Wide Web and stand as inadvertent barriers to the execution of fiduciary duties in the digital world. State legislatures, private entities, and courts have made some efforts to correct these problems, but no current solutions provide the level of certainty that account holders and courts typically seek in fiduciary property management. Consequently, account holders are uncertain about the future of their digital property; fiduciaries must choose between refusing to manage digital property at the risk of civil liability, and executing their duties at the risk of criminal liability. Additionally, digital service providers (“service providers”) must fend for themselves by carefully crafting their terms of service (“TOS”) and privacy policies (“PPs”). 

This article discusses four types of fiduciaries, each of which is affected by the vast growth in and the need to manage digital property. The article begins by defining digital property and discussing why it must be managed. The article then discusses how digital property affects powers of attorney, conservatorships, probate administration, and trusts. 

After illustrating the problems that digital property creates for each fiduciary, the article shifts to resolving these problems. It begins by debunking purported solutions by both private and governmental entities. It concludes by offering a holistic approach to resolving the conflicts facing account holders, fiduciaries, and service providers and providing the level of security sought in fiduciary property management, as well as a best-practices approach in the interim to a complete solution.


Articles, Estate Administration, New Legislation, Technology, Web/Tech | Permalink

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