Based in Seattle, Washington, Eterniam is a start up that provides an application suite for digital assets and creates a digital legacy.
The world is dematerializing at an exciting pace. As Vaclav Smil points out, a "single iPhone replaces a camera, a compass, a map, an alarm clock, a telephone, and many other physical objects". The trend is clear: everything is becoming digital. The implications are profound.
You can own a physical compass. You can gift it to someone. You can bequeath it to an heir in your will. People are known to treasure their grandfather’s lovely compass. What can you do with an iPhone compass app? Precious little, besides use it yourself. Last year, the Daily Mail said that Bruce Willis worries about how to leave his iTunes music collection to his daughters. Whether real or made-up, that story struck a chord with many.
The concept of ownership of digital assets does exist. When you take a photo with your digital camera, you have a copyright in that work of authorship. You own the photo. It is what you do with it afterwards that is important. Say you upload that photo to Facebook. Under Facebook’s current Terms of Service (a binding legal contract), you grant Facebook “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook.” Facebook can use your content or license it to others without having to ask you or pay you. Even though you still own the copyright, someone else can do what they want with your digital asset. To most people, loss of control means loss of ownership.
Many free online services operate in this way. They are for-profit corporations and their legal agreements are fair if you understand them: you give them precious copyrighted content that they can use freely in exchange for the service they are offering you. In other words, you pay them not with cash but with your digital possessions.
Not all free services take control of your uploaded digital assets in this way. For example, Dropbox states in its Terms of Service that “you retain full ownership to your stuff.” Dropbox uses a freemium business model and hopes that you will see sufficient value in its offering that you will convert to a paying user.
The concept of ownership of digital assets gets even murkier when a person passes away and the next-of-kin claim possession.
Flickr (owned by Yahoo) is very explicit in its Terms of Service: “No Right of Survivorship and Non-Transferability; upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate, your account may be terminated and all contents therein permanently deleted.” The Swiss company DSwiss’ Internet Data Safe is one of the few services that attempt to address the issue by explicitly calling out “Data Inheritance” in its Terms.
Most of humanity chases wealth till their dying days, even if philosophers lament the pointlessness of it.
Wealth transfer between generations is well established and has worked nicely in many countries for many centuries. As everything of value becomes digital, however, this transfer of wealth can no longer be taken for granted. The mindless giving away of precious digital content to ad-revenue corporations is transferring wealth from the consumer to those corporations at an alarming rate.
At the end of a life of buying iTunes music and Kindle books, of posting your creative photos and videos on Facebook, of publishing your novel online, your heirs are left with no digital possessions to own, from you.
An impractical solution for persons technically inclined is to manage all of their content themselves on physically owned computers and eschew most online services. The effort involved in ensuring that the data is protected against the house burning down and the corruption of hard drives, of updating the software that understands the format of the digital assets, of making sure the right heirs get the right digital assets is prohibitive.
A new approach is needed. Not merely a technological one, but a business model one. There is a two hundred billion dollar industry to deal with the transfer of physical and monetary assets between generations in the U.S. alone. We posit that this number, while huge, will be dwarfed by the nascent industry that handles the transfer of digital assets.
The confluence of several powerful trends portends this: the increased prominence of data privacy in the consumer’s mind (a prerequisite for data ownership), the prevalence of cloud storage, the ubiquity of mobile devices (powerful instruments of digital authorship), the rise of wearable computing (which reinforces the privacy trend) and the possibility of mass adoption of a purely digital currency such as Bitcoin.
It will be fascinating to watch how the digital economy will allow people to not only create wealth but also to bequeath these precious digital assets to their descendants.