I am going to my parents’ house this weekend, and my favorite part of the visit is always standing in front of my moms’ bookshelves, gazing at all those lovely books that will one day surely be handed down to me and my siblings. I don’t know if many of them are valuable, but there is a lot of irreplaceability in those shelves; whole series, fun mid-century titles like Trixie Belden (what I used my birthday money for three years running) and Cherry Ames, and encyclopedic “child’s treasury” books. The Louis L’Amour my dad and I devoured for years when we lived in Montana (and source of all my knowledge about using your peripheral vision to watch out for bandits when you’re alone on the dark range).
But hang on, say many of my friends; those are dust collectors, taking up valuable space. Let’s go minimalist and put it all on our iPads and Kindles and Nooks! There are all kinds of arguments for this practice, from the (sometimes) cheaper retail prices of e-books to the ease of moving. I have all kinds of arguments against it, including the way I love to discover old notes and markings in garage sale and thrift store books, and how nice it is to be able to flip back and forth to maps and images and important details about the characters. And I just like to look at books, and have them in my hand.
What about your estate?
It’s easy to transfer ownership of my parents’ Trixie Belden and Louis L’Amour books. Simple, we put them into a box, and drive them to my house. Attorneys from the publishers do not have to be consulted and, likely, none of my siblings will mourn (and I happen to have the most bookshelves in the family). But not so for the growing collections of e-books, like those of some of my friends who have made the conversion from paper to digital with gusto.
I’ll bet my friends Mara and Raven have a few thousands of dollars’ worth of books on their Kindles and iPads. A software engineer and entrepreneur, Raven is an early adopter and Mara is an avid reader. But they could be on rocky ground when it comes to passing along their digital library to their grandkids. As SmartMoney points out, “Apple and Amazon grant nontransferable rights to use content.”
You can’t give it away what you don’t own
The same thing is true of music. While it’s possible to share Apple-device music with your family by signing in to iTunes on several different devices owned by the family members, there’s a legal grey area when it comes to bequeathing accounts. And certainly, you could offer your iPod to your inheritors and they would have access to all the songs there (for as long as the device survived). But you can’t divvy them up.
If your son loves jazz and hates country, and your daughter feels the opposite, in this scenario you’d have to choose one genre to live on after you were gone, and give the device to that child. It seems overwhelmingly likely that your digital content, far from lasting forever, will simply be forgotten when you’re gone.
The intangible is hard to put in an estate sale
The average Apple iOS user (anyone using an Apple device beginning with an “i”) spends an average of $150 a year on digital content. Some of this, to be sure, is extra eagles in Angry Birds and other things that are gone forever. But it’s likely to only grow as more people shift from analog to digital content.
Let’s say you spend $20,000 on digital content over your lifetime, and then you pass on. Your heirs cannot hold an estate sale to sell your books, movies, tunes, and apps. They cannot split up the content and may not be able to use it when your device expires. What could have been worth $5,000 or $10,000 in an estate sale is, essentially, gone.
Power to the paper and plastic!
It may still not make sense for your life to stick with the archaic paper books and plastic disks. But it’s at least worth thinking about every time you go to click “purchase” on your device. This is not an asset; you are paying to use the book, music or video for some limited time that will not survive you. If you’re fine with that, go ahead — click away! Just remember, this is not a family heirloom. So budget wisely.
Note from Nickel: In the time since Sarah drafted this piece, Bruce Willis was reported to have filed suit against Apple over his inability to bequeath his iTunes library to his kids. Though the story was quickly refuted, it’s still a very interesting issue.