The Digital Inheritance of Mobile Apps: Where’s the App for That?

Cruz, Edwin | January 1, 2016

Digital inheritance laws relating to mobile applications are largely unsettled as courts and legislatures grapple with how to treat new types of digital property. As developers of mobile applications pass away, many revenue-producing applications may become ownerless, which would remove the benefit to both developers’ heirs and to the public user base. Moreover, successors with motives and skills not aligned with those of the original developers may prove to be harmful to the financial viability and character of an otherwise profitable app. Currently, successors view profitable mobile applications left by deceased developers as meal tickets and nothing more. This can lead to the deterioration of an otherwise useful mobile application. In order to protect the intellectual property rights of developers, as well as preserve economic benefit for both individual developers and their users, courts should not allow digital inheritance of mobile applications. Most commentators on digital inheritance analyze digital assets like online music libraries, which are obtained but not created by an individual. Mobile applications present a different type of digital property that requires developers to exercise independent, original creation, which results in a product that is then obtained by other users. For this reason, developers’ rights should be respected in the same way as authors of other original works. This note argues that in order to encourage developers to legitimately transfer ownership of a mobile application to a valid successor, courts should disallow for the inheritance of mobile applications in intestate scenarios. By denying access to potential successors, courts can signal to developers to protect their valuable assets after death. For developers who fail to include mobile applications in their estate, the worst case scenario is that a mobile application becomes obsolete. By denying access to potential successors, courts would incentivize developers to take active steps to prevent the deprecation of their mobile applications.