The year is 2032, Bruce Willis has just died (sorry Bruce), and his cloud, the personal storage space that he has been collecting music, films, documents, and much more for the last 20 years is up for auction to the highest bidder.
Cloud collecting is a big business. Born not long after the cloud went mainstream in 2012, the business of selling clouds is sky high.
Willis's Cloud is especially interesting because he was one of the first to embrace saving all his documents to his backup service, but now he has gone, his estate is selling his storage space and all that is stored on it: the photos of him and Cybil Shepherd in the good old days, some home movies of Demi and the kids, even the email thread where Tarantino pitched him his comeback role in Pulp Fiction.
If that scenario sounds far-fetched it shouldn’t. For years dealers, collectors and auctioneers have done a roaring trade in letters, documents and other personal artifacts of the rich and famous and there is no reason why we shouldn’t expect cloud storage lockers to become objects that are bought and sold in the future in much the same way. In fact, cloud collections are far more interesting than the simple memorabilia that ends up under the hammer for vast sums. A framed and signed movie poster is one thing but how about the more interactive cache of entertaining your guests with Bruce Willis's dinner playlists or his favourite film collection?
All the same, regardless of public interest, the notion highlights the idea of one's personal, virtual possessions which are every bit as "real" and valuable as those in the physical world. We can bequeath our houses, our vinyl, library of books but what happens to your iTunes collection and digital downloads when you die?
According to MarketWatch “someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated”.
The article goes on to say: “And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money,” quoting Evan Carroll, co-author of Your Digital Afterlife.
According to the piece, Evan says he finds it "hard to imagine a situation where a family would be ok with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs. Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”
Apparently, at the moment, the big black hole in the situation is that people who buy digital copies don’t actually own them. Apple and Amazon.com grant “nontransferable” rights to use content. So, if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the White Album to your son and Abbey Road to your daughter.
Other companies allow you to pass down your digital assets with many of the big social networks already putting into place practices that let you pass on your social presence to your love ones (the question of whether you can sell them is yet to be really tested).
For Facebook, your heirs can request that your account be deleted or “memorialized.”
“It is our policy to memorialize all deceased users' accounts on the site. When an account is memorialized, only confirmed friends can see the timeline or locate it in Search,” says Facebook on the subject. “Friends and family can leave posts in remembrance.”
YouTube is another company that will let family members access deceased relatives accounts if they can prove that they’ve died. Users have to send them a death certificate to access the account details if they don’t already know them.
There are even companies that will deal with all the information for you, so to speak, highlighting where you need to go, what you need to do, and how you contact the social network or online service that you are trying to manage.
One such site/service is deceasedaccount.com. Deceased Account describes itself as a free resource provided by LifeEnsured for families to help manage the online accounts of deceased relatives gathering documentation and best practices from online account providers on how to close, transfer or change accounts of deceased users. Worryingly, though, not all websites, networks and services offer you any chance of getting the contents people have uploaded at all.
Flickr, for example, will shut the deceased's account down, and Yahoo accounts are non-transferrable. Deceasedaccount.com says: “Upon receipt of a death certificate, the account will be terminated and all content deleted.” Ouch. The solution to this then, and the way around most of this digital inheritance issues would be to make sure you include login and password details in your will saving those your leave behind the peace of mind that they can access your life’s creations.
The trouble with passwords, of course, is that you change them more often than you update your will and the process is far simpler. So, it seems the risk of using a secure, online password storage service is outweighed by the inconvenience and cost of constant trips to your solicitor's office. Services like RoboForm and LastPass exist for just that purpose and will look after your, email, bank and credit card accounts too for less than $10 a year, but then where do you keep the log -n details for access to those?
Still, Apple, Amazon, Flickr et al might get a bit suspicious that you're still going strong into your 164th year of active account use. It may be that they don't care or instead that investigation departments spring up to find out if a given named is actually deceased with their assets being used fraudulently. It might seem a nonsense but there's a lot more money in getting each person to buy music and movies afresh once more than family collections simply growing at more gentle and far less lucrative rates.
That job of the future as a Cloud Collector could just as easily be an online bailiff, repossessing virtual assets, as a dealer in the digital memorabilia of the rich and the famous.
At the moment, the landscape isn’t that simple. We belong to the first digital generations for whom this is an issue and you can bet that the laws and terms of agreement will change as we age. In the mean time though, spare a thought for those non-material items that you own, or you could find that your precious memories and favourites creations become lost along with you.