The range of emerging fields, each with its own name, demonstrates the vastness of the arena. There is IT Law, aka Information Technology Law, which covers the digital dissemination of information and software, and in a broad sense, the legal aspects of information technology. Then there’s Cyberlaw, aka Internet Law, covering legal issues relating only to use of the Internet. Internet access, usage, freedom of expression on the net, privacy and personal data rights are covered in Internet Law or Cyberlaw. There is some overlap here with IP Law, aka Intellectual Property Law, a distinct specialty covering digital and cybernetic aspects of such property.
Then there’s Computer Law, further muddying the waters, as it covers internet law (which, as above, is a category unto itself), copyright and patent aspects of computer technology and software.
And this just scratches the surface.
Consider this question: who owns the material in this article? Is the material Intellectual Property? Is it copyrighted material, and if so, does that copyright belong to the writer of this article or the publisher of this online magazine? Or, perhaps, does “ownership” somehow accrue to the ISP you’re using to read this online? Do some or all of them share ownership, or rights to the content, or the advertising that accompanies the article in the magazine? Do the advertisers have ownership, or perhaps liability, for the content?
Photos you post to a photo sharing site or a social media platform are also digital assets, although the platform or service may claim legal rights, if not ownership, to that as content.
This is intricate, confusing, murky, business.
And then there’s the matter of Digital Assets. What, you might ask, are Digital Assets? Do you have your own website? Do you own a domain (perhaps www.yourname.com or www.yourbusiness.net)? Ownership, in and of itself, is a curious matter. Copyright, or intellectual property, might be the more apt consideration.
Owning a domain enables you to control how it is hosted on the Internet and what content is on the website associated with that domain. But a domain is not limited to just a website. A domain can be a digital storehouse, like Dropbox, OneDrive, or GoogleDrive. All of this might be housed in your domain. A domain can lead the way to an online presence in which a web site and a digital repository can coexist. If you own that domain, you are legally responsible for what is housed in that domain and how it might be used, if accessed via your domain.
Do you have an account with Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Snapchat, LinkedIn. Flickr, Instagram, WhatsApp, WeChat, Reddit, or any of the other, social media or business platforms? Or the dating platforms? Do you belong to any Google or Yahoo groups? Or cooking, music, scuba diving or any of the special interest areas that enable users to sign up, create a presence, interact and develop a portfolio or digital dossier of data? When you post to those sites, do you own that data or do the sites retain ownership, as it resides on their domain(s)? Are you aware that there are services that aggregate all this data, plus all available public data such as campaign contributions, birth, death, and divorce records, to create complete digital records on individuals?
What would happen to your digital assets if you become incapacitated, or upon your death? In the Digital Era, your Digital Assets become part of your estate. In my will I made provisions for my websites and how certain aspects of my digital presence and assets are to be dealt with.
In business there is value associated with websites or other online entities such as eCommerce, promotional or professional online presence. Authority and management of these must be accounted for in the event of being incapacitated or, worse, death. This is akin to having what insurance calls a “key man policy,” or what in business law is the stated path of succession.
I’ve been active on the Internet and the Web for 30+ years and used computers in business for 10 years prior to getting online. Over that period I’ve come to know many lawyers well versed in various aspects of digital law. I work closely in Personal Data, Internet Identity, Privacy and other initiatives, and have a major personal and professional interest in protecting the rights and sovereignty of the individual. Add to that marketing, sales and research work, and how those, too, integrate with online, digital issues. These are areas where I have developed a considerable body of knowledge through the years. Yet it seems we are still in the early days of Digital Law.
Exercise care; don’t just make assumptions based on matters outside the electronic arena.
The best strategy for managing one’s digital assets and considering one’s digital presence is to be aware, consult with an attorney well versed in the types of law described above, and to do an annual review of your digital asset management. And remember: your digital footprint is all but impossible to erase.
Dean Landsman is a NYC-based Digital Strategist who writes a monthly column for PR for People “The Connector.”