Is Bruce Willis trying to take a byte out of Apple?

Last updated: 19 March 2014

In his iconic role as cop John McClane, star of the Die Hard series, Bruce Willis became renowned for foiling the antics of some of Hollywood’s most notorious bad guys. But, according to recent reports, Bruce has now set his sights on an altogether different opponent.

A number of news organisations across the globe have this week claimed that Willis plans to take tech giant Apple to court in order to ensure that his children can take possession of his iTunes library when he dies. While his wife has since denied the claims, the story raises an interesting issue which we have touched upon in the past: that of digital inheritance and what happens to one’s ‘online assets’ in the event of death.

This is arguably more complex in the case of Apple and iTunes than with other digital properties such as Facebook or Twitter. Because they have been preceded by CDs and vinyl (physical items which are owned and collected), most people believe that they ‘own’ their digital music files in exactly the same way as they do their Sergeant Pepper LP or Nevermind disc. In fact, that is not the case: anyone who agrees to iTunes’ Ts & Cs is, in essence, only granted a license to listen to that music on a certain number of devices.

This raises two separate issues. Firstly, the fact that this will be news to most iTunes users suggests that the vast majority of us do not read the Terms & Conditions of service before agreeing to them. This is all too easy to do in the online age when presented with seemingly endless pages of legal jargon, but it is perhaps something we should all take more seriously. To the same token, the companies imposing these terms should also be encouraged to make them more succinct and clearer for users.

Secondly, and more importantly, how to do we protect our digital assets against improper use in the event of our death, while also ensuring that their rightful heirs can have access to them? As this is a problem which is only just beginning to emerge, it’s safe to say that we don’t yet know all the answers to this, but strong authentication measures (beyond the ubiquitous username and password method) will certainly be involved. Until this resolved, some of us may think twice about what we choose to upload, download and share online, for fear that it may one day be misappropriated or disappear altogether, so it is something that all of us in the industry will need to look hard at in the years ahead.

So whether or not Bruce is on a collision course with Cupertino, he may inadvertently have posed a question that desperately needs answering. After all, none of us want to die (hard) with a vengeance; against Apple or any other company.

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