Recently, there was an article in the Austin American Statesmen, discussing a unique issue that has become a part of the digital lifestyle. What happens to a person’s online presence after they die? How does a family settle the digital estate of a person? The article used the recent death of an author to show the dilemma – this bestselling author, a woman in her mid 30’s, unexpectedly died and “left behind a trove of literary work.” Unfortunately, this work was stored in an internet cloud, secured by password and no one knew the password except for Google. Naturally, the father wanted to know what his daughter had left and, after “costly legal maneuvers this summer stretching from Australia to Silicon Valley”, he finally got his answers.
Unfortunately, as you can imagine, this quandary is becoming more commonplace. As explained in the article, “A surge of families with similar questions is driving a behind-the-scenes political battle between tech companies and estate/probate lawyers over who gets the keys to someone’s digital afterlife.” California’s lawmakers’ answer to this issue is to introduce legislation which essentially denies families access to emails (digital accounts) unless there is a court order. Not hard to see why this legislation is backed by Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Google etc. According to the American Statesmen, the major IP companies favor this type of legislation because it would “lessen the bureaucratic hassle of complying with millions of posthumous requests.” Currently, according to the Statesmen, “Yahoo destroys everything at death and reveals nothing.” “Facebook and Google, however, have online tools that allow users to choose their digital heirs and how much (of their digital information) they want preserved or deleted upon death.” But, how many people think of “digital heirs” while they are searching Facebook or doing a “Google” search or even know this option exists.
So, the obvious point here is to make a decision about these digital accounts now! Then, of course, let someone know your wishes and provide them with a way to access your digital accounts. In fact, I encourage my clients to make a list of all digital accounts, with user name and password, and store that list with their estate planning documents. I encourage you to do the same.
One of the most confusing areas of the law is copyright. There are misconceptions about ownership, creation, registration and protection. In that I teach a music business class that discusses this subject extensively, I thought I would write a series of blogs to hopefully shed some light on the subject.
The first question - How do you know when you have a copyright in your work? The second question - Do you have to register your work/creation with the copyright office to establish a claim of copyright?
To answer the first question: copyright attaches the moment the creation or work is manifest into a tangible format that can be communicated to others. In legal terms, copyright protects original works of authorship that are fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Therefore, registration with the Federal Copyright Office is not required to establish a copyright. One just needs commit the work to a tangible medium, such as, paper, tape/digital audio, canvas, computer file etc.
There are, however, definite advantages to registering your work:
I hope this brief explanation provides you with a better understanding of copyright. Of course, if you have any questions regarding copyright, or need help in registering your creative work, don't hesitate to give our office a call.
Stephen Owen Summer has been practicing law in Austin and surrounding areas for over 15 years. Stephen took an nontraditional route to becoming a lawyer, first carving out a career as a highly regarded jazz musician before returning to school. This unique and diverse background allows Stephen to approach law with a creative and fresh perspective.
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