Below is an abstract of Kathleen Farro’s recent article entitled, “The ‘Digital First Sale Doctrine:’ A Necessary Piece of the Digital Estate Planning Puzzle:”
As technology advances, the aspects of our lives that are played out in the digital realm, both personal and professional, are ever-increasing. We conduct our banking online, we communicate with friends, family and business associates via email and social networks, and we create original, creative works on internet-based applications. Our creative work, professional work, and practical communications that were once limited to oral communication and paper records are now captured, conveyed, and stored digitally. Trading tangible media for the digital realm has become commonplace. Some changes are as simple as the box of photographs stored in the closet that are being replaced by expansive online libraries of digital photographs. On a grander economic scale, for example, is the marketability of a celebrity persona that was once measured by his or her ability to promote products in a newspaper print ad or on a television commercial. Now, the number of people accessing that celebrity’s life, opinions and preferences in the digital realm can have an equal or greater financial effect.
While this evolution can have many advantages in our every day lives – making thinking, doing, communicating, and working – easier, quicker, more efficient, and less expensive, it can also jeopardize things that we may take for granted in our purely “tangible” life. The digital age may decrease our actual, human interactions and compromise our privacy. It may reduce what may be considered “our property” in the tangible world to something owned and controlled by others when carried out in the digital realm. Within the conversion to a digital world, our property rights, and thus our ability to convey and devise those to others, may, quite literally, get lost in translation.
The property rights we most frequently give up to carry on life in the digital realm are those that are carried out and promulgated within a framework of copyright-protected material. For example: email, Facebook, Twitter, and various “gaming” activities are copyright-protected.
For estate planners, these facts present hurdles to carrying out the wishes of those who desire to transfer some of their digital “property” to their loved ones, friends, or others either by devise or within an inter vivos trust. For example, a man may spend years building an iTunes library of music. At $0.99 to $1.29 a song, and likely more in the future, he may invest thousands of dollars over the years in this collection. Upon his death or disability, he may wish to transfer this library to his children. The current law does not allow this; the point at which he himself is unable to use the library, there is no way in which any party can lawfully utilize that song library.
This paper will examine the property rights individuals generally hold in copyrighted material and digital copyrighted material. It provides a thorough explanation of the First Sale Doctrine as applied to tangible media and the limitations on its applicability in the digital realm. It then goes on to explain Congress’s first attempt at incorporating digital media into the First Sale Doctrine in 1998 – what conclusions it drew and why Congress declined to update the doctrine. Between technological advancements, court cases in the U.S. and overseas, and various other legal principles and practices, there are now substantial policy bases for revisiting a “digital” First Sale Doctrine. The implementation of a digital First Sale Doctrine would have far-reaching effects; however, for our purposes, this doctrine would at least provide individuals with assurance that their digital property can be preserved to pass along to others.
See Kathleen Farro, “The ‘Digital First Sale Doctrine’: A Necessary Piece of the Digital Estate Planning Puzzle,” (Jul. 15, 2014).
Posted by Morgan Yuan, Esq., Associate Editor, Wealth Strategies Journal.