Bruce Willis: one thing is true

The story that Bruce Willis was to sue Apple because he could not leave his MP3s in his will circulated round the UK press last weekend. His wife has since denied it.

However, one thing remains true. Your digital rights are pretty limited when it comes to leaving downloaded copyright material in your will.

This stands in contrast to physical goods, where you can of course resell or leave your books, DVDs and CDs in your will.

Only software downloads can legally be transferred or resold. A recent case in Europe made this clear when Oracle tried to stop UsedSoft from reselling their downloaded, licensed software. The court disagreed, and pointed to the EU Software Directive.

Many of the reports focused on terms and conditions of Apple’s store. On one level, this is true, copyright owners could agree to license their downloads like this. Perhaps this would be complicated, given the myriad levels of contracts and ownerships, but it is possible if consumer demand is there.

More fundamentally, a change in the law is needed. People will start noticing how unfair this is as they write their wills. As they learn that their digital assets, those they have bought, perhaps for thousands of pounds, are worthless on death, they will feel cheated.

Equally, there is little prospect that individuals who inherit hard drives are going to meticulously delete material which has been paid for. The law will turn people inheriting the physical assets into copyright infringers.

Europe missed a chance to resolve these problems in the Consumer Rights Directive in 2011, although some improvements to the digital market have been made.

But the problem isn’t going away. In many cases, where material is downloaded from a single account like iTunes, the excuses for denying transferability are extremely flimsy. Copyright needs to work for people who are investing in their collections, and the inheritability of your collection is a key missing right.

Someone needs to take on Apple and Amazon. And we don’t need to wait for Hollywood stars to do it.