Your Purchased iTunes, Ebooks Die With You

The iTunes license is nontransferable. So when you die, all access to the content you've bought goes with you. BYTE's Chris Spera thinks that's messed up.

Chris Spera, Contributor

August 28, 2012

5 Min Read

The first anniversary of my dad's death this past week reminded me of the digital memories he left behind. Although I check his Facebook page from time to time, my mom and I have been closing down a number of accounts that he used. Figuring out what to do with his iTunes Store account is another matter. When a customer dies, everything he bought goes with him.

How messed up is that?

I blame the Recording Industry Association of America. It's the RIAA's fault that something as simple as inheriting an iTunes library is so flippin' complicated.

You can't will someone all or part of your MP3 collection, your eBook library, or any of your other online assets. Specifically, without a way to officially transfer a license from one person to another once a person dies, the nontransferable license that person purchased from Apple or Amazon to "use" the content expires with them.

I was surprised to see an article on Market Watch that reminded me of sticky points with the law and online accounts.

Did you know that it's technically a federal offense to access an online account with someone else's password, even if that person gave you permission? Technically, shared mail accounts are a no-no. In the same way, accessing the iTunes or Amazon Store account of your deceased relative also is illegal.

To get around this, most people simply use their loved one's computer to access those accounts, provided they still have the passwords.

But again, although companies have no way of knowing whether the person accessing the account is or isn't the actual account owner, the whole scenario creates a legal gray area that can make one feel uneasy.

This application of license isn't much different from what we're used to. The physical CDs, DVDs, and books that you buy contain--actually are--license keys. That key can be physically passed along with the content because they are one and the same physical entity. It gets more complicated when it comes to digital content.

When you buy content from either of the popular online stores, you are purchasing a license to use the content. Both Apple and Amazon grant nontransferable rights to use that content, meaning that the purchaser is legally allowed to listen to, read, and view the content. There's just one huge catch: the purchaser doesn't own the files he downloads. That's because unlike physical objects, the content is intangible.

Digital files are supposed to be used only by the person with the purchased license key--a.k.a. the password purchased with the account--but in fact, as we all know, MP3s and other digital content can be moved from one electronic medium to another and from person to person without buying another key. This makes industry watchdogs like the RIAA lose its mind.

There are a couple of ways most people get around the digital key problem. One keeps you in the legal gray area. The other gets you out of the gray area, but can create potential access problems later.

1. Burn to disc and rip. Back in the early days of iTunes and DRM, I didn't know anyone who did not do this. If you bought a copy of a music album through iTunes or some other online store, after downloading it you would immediately burn a physical copy of the album, delete the DRM'ed content from your computer, and then rip the CD back to your music library.

This also can work for video content, but gets a bit more complicated. You need an app that will convert your video file to the VOD format and will burn a set-top-box-compatible DVD. DVD formats are a bit touchy, and this isn't as easy an operation on the video side of things as it is on the audio side.

Pulling the DRM off the legally purchased and downloaded content by burning a backup copy and ripping it back into your library is the gray area. While not technically illegal, it might raise an eyebrow or two.

2. Use Home Sharing. Apple created Home Sharing so that people in the same household can share their iTunes libraries. You can even copy content from a shared library to your own library. All you have to do is turn on Home Sharing on the desired computers (up to five) with the same Apple ID. The content can then be played on those computers, played on any iDevice connected to any of the authorized PCs, or both. Users can use that content for as long as those PCs remain authorized. They also can burn copies to optical discs, but they should not be surprised when they receive an anti-piracy reminder when they do so.

The only issue with this scenario revolves around the Home Sharing credentials used to share the content. If at some point you have to rebuild your PC and restore the contents of your library, effectively rebuilding your iTunes library from scratch, including the shared content, you're going to need the Apple ID and password of the legal content owner to re-enable play of that content--if you haven't removed the DRM with the burn/rip method noted in option number 1, above.

If the content purchaser in question is deceased and that Apple ID is no longer active, you're technically no longer authorized to use the content. However, as long as your library is backed up and that backup includes the sharing authorization, you will still be able to view or listen to it.

So what does this all mean? If you buy digital content, only you are licensed to use it. If you die, the license to use it expires with you. If you've legally shared the content with your family via Home Sharing or other legal method, their license to use it also expires, though they technically can continue to use it.

Until there's a better solution to this problem, it looks like you really can take it with you. The problem is that no one left behind is allowed to enjoy your iTunes and Amazon libraries, too, at least not guilt free.

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About the Author(s)

Chris Spera


Based in Chicago, Chris is a senior IT consultant. He serves BYTE as a Contributing Editor. Follow Chris on Twitter at @chrisspera and email him at [email protected].

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