21st century problem: “Who inherits your iTunes library?”

If you have made a will, don’t forget to include your digital music and ebooks:

Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.

And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”

Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files—but they don’t actually own them…

Most digital content exists in a legal black hole. “The law is light years away from catching up with the types of assets we have in the 21st Century,” says Wheatley-Liss. In recent years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who’ve died, but the regulations don’t cover digital files purchased.

Another reason to buy the physical version if you really like the music or book.

Thinking more broadly, this extends to a whole host of digital content. What happens to your Facebook information if you die? Your Dropbox account? Accessing your email? Stories about these circumstances tend to stress the lack of formal legal or corporate agreement of what should be done. How about a “dead digital user bill or rights”?

Issues with the world’s largest digital library

While Google seems cleared to become an important scholarly destination due to its efforts to create the world’s largest digital library, Geoffrey Nunberg argues the system has some critical problems:

But to pose those [scholarly] questions, you need reliable metadata about dates and categories, which is why it’s so disappointing that the book search’s metadata are a train wreck: a mishmash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess…

But I have the sense that a lot of the initial problems are due to Google’s slightly clueless fumbling as it tried master a domain that turned out to be a lot more complex than the company first realized. It’s clear that Google designed the system without giving much thought to the need for reliable metadata. In fact, Google’s great achievement as a Web search engine was to demonstrate how easy it could be to locate useful information without attending to metadata or resorting to Yahoo-like schemes of classification. But books aren’t simply vehicles for communicating information, and managing a vast library collection requires different skills, approaches, and data than those that enabled Google to dominate Web searching.

I’m sure Google is interested in correcting some of these issues – even their famous search algorithm is under constant scrutiny as they search for more optimal ways to present information.

Even as these problems are ironed out, it does seem like having this kind of digital library could transform scholarly research. Just as I can’t imagine a world where all sociology articles are online (and I can access many of them), years from now we may look back and wonder how people operated without a vast online library of digital books.