/ Technology

iPass away – do my digital downloads die with me?

If you’ve built up a proud collection of books, records and DVDs, you’d expect to be able to pass them on to your next of kin. But what happens to all of the downloads you’ve paid for during your life?

The digital afterlife is an uncertain business, it seems. We challenged both Apple and Amazon on whether digital downloads could be passed on after death, and neither could give us a definitive answer.

As more and more purchases are made in a digital, rather than physical form, we think it’s time for the main digital retailers to clear up our rights to pass on property we’ve paid for.

Purchasing a product, or renting a licence?

As it stands, the rights of iTunes and Amazon customers look pretty shaky when it comes to passing on downloads. If you buy a music track from a digital store, you’re essentially buying a licence to play that track – a licence granted to you only, which isn’t transferable upon death.

Legally you’re essentially just renting tracks – you don’t actually own them, as Matthew Strain of law firm Strain-Keville pointed out to us in the latest issue of Which? Computing:

‘We do not “own” what we purchase on iTunes, we only have the right to use it. The right to the “product” is therefore limited and passing it on to someone else is not likely to be accepted by Apple.’

The issue extends to the rapidly-growing ebooks market as well – Amazon’s Kindle licence explicitly forbids you from passing on your downloaded ebooks:

‘Unless specifically indicated otherwise, you may not sublicence or otherwise assign any rights to the digital content or any portion of it to a third party.’

Bequeathing your account passwords

So is there any way around this? The short answer is, yes and no.

It’s easy to pass on a physical device like an iPod or a Kindle, which will have music or books loaded onto it. However, if this device needed updating by accessing an account, the new owner could be left vulnerable to losing everything.

Ok, so why not simply hand over your account passwords, letting your next of kin access your iTunes or Amazon purchases? While this sounds simple, it can actually qualify as a breach of the T&Cs agreed upon when you set up an account. Matthew Strain explains:

‘Allowing others to have your account details is a breach of security as the contract sees it. This is not a direct breach of the terms of the contract, but Apple may take the view that it is and terminate your account privileges.’

The Cloud makes things foggier

Increasingly, the idea of storing files on a device you carry around with you will seem outdated – the move to Cloud storage, where files are stored remotely, makes it more essential than ever that we know where we stand when it comes to passing on paid-for downloads.

After all, if all of your files are stored remotely, and only accessible by you (according to a contract you signed when opening your account), handing your digital purchases over to loved ones upon your death becomes even more difficult.

Shouldn’t we be free to pass on our downloads to whomever we choose, just as they would with a physical product? As it stands, all of the rights seem stacked against the us.

George E. says:
20 February 2012

All the more reason not to support DRM and to only purchase digital goods without it.

Crispen says:
21 February 2012

“To my grandson, I bequeath my original 2.5tb HDD, complete with every episode of the Simpsons.”


To my grandson I bequeath my orignal 10TB HDD filled with porn.


One of the reasons this area is such a mess, is because format shifting without a special license is against the law in the UK. So you are not allowed to copy an MP3 track you’ve purchased off Amazon, for instance, onto another permanent medium such as CD for your own personal use, let alone gifting it to someone in your will.

HM Government is actually running a consultation on the recommendations made in the Hargreaves review and is inviting responses to a range of proposals by 21st March 2012.

Of particular relevance is the impact assessment relating to copyright exemption for private copying. The government’s preference is for Option 1, that would still limit format shifting to personal use. Option 2 would extend this right to the family household. No doubt the music industry has other views.

Find out more at ipo.gov.uk and get campaigning for a fairer system.

And why isn’t this opportunity for consumers to influence the law being highlighted by Which?


Hi Em, we’ve actually written quite a few times about the outdated copyright laws and how they mean it’s illegal to rip. We’ve argued that ripping should be completely legal and talked about the Hargreaves review on multiple occasions: https://conversation.which.co.uk/tag/ripping-music/

The most recent being this one by myself: https://conversation.which.co.uk/technology/copyright-law-ripping-copying-dvds-cds-film-hargreaves/

In theory if Hargreaves review is accepted in full, it could mean ripping DVDs is legal too – and why not? Allowing it for music CDs but not DVDs would be a double standard.

The last I heard the government had accepted the review in full, though it’s interesting to hear about those two options. Again though, it feels like the Hargreaves review is out of date – everyone rips CDs, what we need to talk specifically about are download rights, where a physical piece of media hasn’t come into it at all.


Hi Patrick, thanks for the quick response!

I’m not disputing that Which? haven’t highlighted the outdated copyright laws on a number of occasions in the past, but consumers currently have a limited opportunity to respond to the consultation documents, and not just sit on their hands and watch while the commercial interests slug it out. And if Which? have argued that ripping should be completely legal, will they be submitting a response to the consultation?

The IA I’ve just referenced even seems to have woken up to the existence of cloud services, where there is no physical medium involved – at least at the consumer end – although I feel the Government have not grasped exactly what they are dealing with. Again, some guidance from an organisation like Which? might be welcome.

Anon E Mouse says:
21 February 2012

Not to rain on your hate-on-DRM parade, but… I work for iTunes Store Customer Support. We transfer account ownership (and all the content access rights that are attached to that account) in the event that the original account-holder passes away. As with most property transfers in this situation, we require proof that the account-holder is deceased and that the person making the request has the legal right to the deceased’s property.

While it’s true that modern DRM law means you don’t “own” the digital content you pay for, the same is true of the media contained on physical media – you own the physical media, and limited usage rights to the content therein. iTunes Store accounts work pretty much the same way; you don’t own full rights to the songs you buy, but you own the account itself.

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer; I’m just relating the procedures us tier one phone advisors follow for requests to transfer an account after the original owner passes away. I have never heard of such a request being rejected (assuming the proper records could be provided), and as far as I know we don’t even have procedural documents in place to reject such a request other than reiterating “you need to send us X and Y documents, and you haven’t done that yet; please do that.”


Thanks Anon E Mouse, that’s a useful perspective from someone in a position to experience this situation first hand. It’s good to know that in these instances it’s possible to transfer digital rights upon request, though I think what is lacking is a clearly stated policy that lets Apple customers know this is possible now and will be for the future.

Without such terms and conditions in place, consumers still risk losing their rights to passing on digital downloads later down the line. It sounds like Apple is doing the right thing on a case-by-case basis at the moment, according to you, so all the more reason to keep everyone happy and cement these rights in their terms and conditions