MG Mason

What Happens To Your Ebooks After You Die?


Not to get too morbid, but I came across this a couple of months ago when a neighbour lost his wife. They had a joint account at Amazon and he owns a Kindle but the account was in her name. I wondered what the legality of the situation was and who would be entitled to keep the ebooks (and digital music and films) after my neighbour passed away. What I found out surprised me.

With your physical media – your CDs, DVDs, BluRay and hard copy books, they are yours to pass on to whomever you please. You have bought something physical and own it outright and can bequeath them in your will as you can with any other physical item that you own.

But what about digital media? Can you pass on your ebooks, music files, and downloaded films? In some case where they are stored on your hard drive and do not have protection, you could pass them on in theory but you are not legally entitled to do that and are breaking the law. Most digital media will have DRM which means they are probably not transferable anyway.

When you die, right to ownership of digital media expires and the files themselves disappear into the ether. When you buy an ebook or a digital version of a film or a CD, you are not buying ownership of it – you are purchasing only the right to use it under license as offered by the supplier.

My neighbour was able to keep ownership of his digital books because the Amazon account was a joint one with his deceased wife; he used the same payment method on the same account registered to the same address. The account switched to his individual name and he could carry on as normal. His books though, will not pass to his family members when he passes on unless he hands over rights to use the account.

It must be remembered that so long as the account remains open, the license to use the digital media remains. A reporter at NYT queried this with Amazon and was told in no uncertain terms that he could leave his account to somebody else, meaning there remains the right to use the books indefinitely. That came direct from Amazon.

So, if you have thousands of books on your account, consider bequeathing not just your ereader, but also access to the account through which you bought them.