Yesterday evening, a geekier chunk of the Internet hivemind started buzzing about this article over at Which?. The author raises a few rather interesting questions: what happens to the digital downloads you’ve purchased when you die? Why are we not allowed to pass them on to our loved ones?
By the end, I was ready to grab my pitchfork (read: my pen [sub-read: my PandoDaily login]) and rally the industry for some sort of digital goods will, or an overhaul in licensing terms that would let me bequeath my premium 1′s and 0′s as I saw fit.
But then it hit me: it doesn’t really matter. Once you die, the only person who truly cares about your digital downloads is gone.
Passing your iTunes collection down to your kids isn’t the modern day equivalent to your dad passing his vinyl collection down to you.
Once you take away the physical element*, there is no sense of nostalgia inherent to that file itself. While there may be many a memory associated with a specific album or song, any copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy that you hand down holds no more sentimental value than a copy of that same song sitting on YouTube. You’re not giving them something of yours, but a distant manifestation of something you paid for.
Once you take away the scarcity, you take away any real value. There’s a perceived value from what you paid for it, but its worth is in no way intrinsic to the digital file itself and isn’t something that rides along with it.
It’s a sacrifice we’ve willingly made in the move to digital: intangible goods are soulless. You wouldn’t be giving them something to remember you by, nor something that may one day send your kid’s kids through college — you’d essentially just be saying “Here, now you don’t have to pay for this stuff.”
That, in turn, raises a question: who will want that stuff? Let’s say you have kids and a few decades later, as we tend to eventually do, die. Think of the advances that will have come in that time. Will your kids even want that (now relatively low-fi) copy of “Sorry For Party Rocking”, when they’ll probably be able to get a raw and uncompressed copy beamed straight into their head (or something like that) in the blink of an eye? All your movies: after a few decades of codec evolution and lost legacy formats, will they even play?
Now, don’t get me wrong: we should be able to do whatever we damned well please with the content we buy. We should be able to give the ebooks we’ve finished reading (or the movies we’ve watched, or the music we no longer listen to) away, just as we could their physical equivalent — but to bring in sentimental arguments like this overcomplicates an already incredible complex issue. Let’s finish battling for what we can do with our digital goods when we’re alive before we worry about what happens to them when we die.