Digital Property

From SI410
Jump to: navigation, search
An Expanding Digital Property Network [1]

Digital Property or digital assets is data that is owned by either an individual or business. Information stored on personal hard drives, ranging from, but not limited to, text documents, emails, code files, photos, and video are considered digital property [2]. Additionally, information collected from the Internet that can be converted into binary form, is also considered digital property.

An Expanding Empire of Digital Property

The notion of digital property first appeared in a paper by Albert van Niekerk in 2007 proposing management strategies of media assets (MAM). Niekerk characterized digital assets as having the traits of binary form and classified rights to ownership. Two of the three forms of digital assets, images and multimedia, Niekerk proposed should fall under the definition of a media asset and the other textual content is not discussed in great detail in his paper. [3] In 2013, this definition was further expanded in the paper A New Asset Type: Digital Assets which added the characteristics of reusability and longevity to list of attributes defining a digital asset.[4] As the digital world is expanding at an unprecedented speed as individuals and businesses move towards the trend of greater online presence. In other words, information is being commercialized and distributed in mass and the presence of digital assets holding monetary or sentimental value is becoming more prevalent in society[2]. The improved user convenience and organization characterized by digitalizing information is accelerating this movement. This means that everyone is storing more data digitally, and the global digital property content is multiplying. Humanity is interacting with digital technologies at an exponential rate, leading some to argue that it can be difficult to differentiate between online and offline personas[5]. It is contested that the the once strictly digital cyber space is now an indistinguishable part of humanity's natural modern environment[5]. With this trend of greater online interaction and content capacity comes the necessity for greater cultural and legislative change accordingly.

Video games

In the video game industry, the distribution of digital video games is becoming increasingly popular. The process of buying/selling digital games began in the 1980’s, but this method of buying/selling games digitally did not become prominent until the early 2000’s due to network advancements. As networks bandwidths get better and better over the years, gamers are opting to buy more and more digital games instead of buying physical copies. In all the games that were sold in 2009, 20% were digital games and 80% were physical games. By 2017, the percentage of games that were bought digitally increased from that 20% to 79%. Meaning that only 21% of people opted into buying physical games. [6] This study show that the number of people that are buying and using digital games are steadily increasing giving the people who are purchasing these games digital property.

Legislation Regarding Digital Property

Legislation in the U.S.

The United States prides itself in supporting creativity and innovation to enact progress. Therefore, protection of intellectual property is treated as a fundamental right and is highlighted in the constitution. In Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8 it states that Congress has the power to “promote the Progress of Science and Useful arts, by securing, for limited Times, to Authors and Investors, the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries”. [7] Digital property is not explicitly mentioned in the constitution given that the digital age came centuries after its creation. The constitution, does, however, account for intellectual property protection, which enabled the the development of patents, copyright, and trademark rights and laws.

Legislation in California

California, which has some of the most developed digital privacy and security laws, has certain statutes that apply to digital assets. California law defines digital assets as any form of digital records or files, which apply to email accounts, blogs, social media accounts, financial accounts, etc. Although ownership and accessibility of these files can vary under a provider's terms of service, the individual who holds the asset is the primary owner. This creates legal ambiguity, such as if a legal executor can access a digital file or social media account after the account holder's death. If the account holder does not provide instructions or information on how to access the file, they cannot gain entry to the assets, since California does not grant authority of digital assets to executors. Assets may continue to exist without proper management or ownership. This includes files, which can hold crucial information, or social media platform information, which may create confusion and ambiguity if they continue to exist after a holder's death. Given the massive amount of online information and growth of digital assets, California is considering updating legislation to help the process of transferring digital asset ownership and management.

Legislation in the European Union

Currently the European Union is working to coordinate the protection of intellectual property with technology in light of the increasingly digital age we live in. The United States is also attempting to create legal structure to protect intellectual property in regards to data and technology through the National Information Infrastructure.[8] The difference between countries in stages of integrating digital property protection laws within current legislation poses another problem. The laws vary by country, although the internet network expands worldwide. [9] Exchange of certain information may be legal in one country, but can be communicated across borders instantaneously and become considered illegal sharing of digital property.

Types of Digital Property

There are three main types of digital property:

  • Personal digital property: Personal digital property is any information that is stored electronically. When referring to electronically, this can mean data that is stored online or on a physical device. Personal digital property also means any online accounts that are personal to the user. A person's personal digital property is legally theirs and even family members cannot access these legally after a loved one passes away. There is a legislative process to follow to access someone else's personal digital property [10].
  • Personal digital property with monetary value: Personal digital property with monetary value is property that generates revenue for personal benefit, such as computing hardware, websites, eBooks, accounts that are used to manage money.
  • Digital business property: Digital business property refers to digital property owned by a business. This can mean accounts that are under the business’s name, assets of an online store, any client data, or mailing lists[11].

Ethical Dilemmas

Data Creation, Ownership, and Privacy

Companies pay big bucks for consumers data. Digital data that originates at the level of individuals is often collected by companies using technology such as cookies. Companies who collect this data sell it to other companies for purposes such as targeted advertising. An ethical concern, users whose data is being collected and sold, are often unaware, as data collection is often a topic that goes unread in site's fine print.

Information Transparency

The process of online users contributing data to companies is often clouded by a lack of information transparency[12], which discusses the extent to which these individuals are aware or even realize their data and information is being collected. Social media platforms are often a big contributor in this regard, as beyond basic informational points such as age, date of birth, and location are stored, so is information that is more personal and less likely to be voluntarily handed out to these data collecting algorithms. Things like political orientation and social class are recorded and stored, very often without the knowledge or consent of the individual with whom this data belongs to. As the way data is stored on platform users is rarely appropriately transparent, it is often an ethically charged issue. Information stored by these platforms become their digital property, even though this information is the property of the individual who may or may not be comfortable giving up the rights to this data. This information can be distributed and sold, resulting in more ethical dilemmas as potentially private information leaves the hands of individuals and they lose full control over it all together. Information transparency is a necessary concept to protect the information of online users, protect privacy, and establish anonymity.

Cookies Pros and Cons

Acknowledging the fact that companies buy and sell digital data called cookies, there must be a sense of knowledge in what cookies technology is, that precedes further discussion. Cookies are small text files or ID tags that contain the contents of a certain website that produced it. Generally consisted of random alphabets and numbers, cookies itself does not imply and type of information. It is mainly used for saving data for users when they come back to the same website and attempt to input the exact information as they did before. Cookies do not have any access to the users' computers and are unable to show any performances such as scanning computers or extracting personal information from users. Instead, they contain personal information that was input by users and encrypt it so that it cannot be shared or decrypted by any third party.

The down side is that it is possible for the company which owns the website server to decode the cookies provided by users and potentially utilize them for multiple purposes. Users are usually asked by the website before they have access to it, questioning whether the user is willing to provide cookies to the server. This gives users the right to either continue using such website or not at the stake of providing cookies to them. In most of the cases, people proceed to access the website because they know cookies are not hacking software. But once the users agree to provide cookies and the main server owns them, they become a digital property of that company and utilizable. This way, companies, especially marketing companies, regard these cookies to be significantly attractive because it legally provides information about people who had access to the website. For instance, utilizes cookies and stores the viewing history of their users. The next time a user comes back to the website, it displays products that were related to the browsing history data they have.

The Target Case

An anonymous teen from Minneapolis was sent physical targeted ads by mail because of data that Target gathered from her digital footprint[13]. Generated through her own searches on search engines, Target used the cookies to make the assumption that the young woman was pregnant, and sent her targeted ads for discounted baby products. Because of the data collected and analyzed, Target suspected she was pregnant long before her parents did, resulting in the family discovering her pregnancy through the targeted ads being sent to their house.

Increased accessibility

The digital age enables information to be shared more efficiently through file uploads, mass email chains, and sharing of social media posts, all of which make up digital property. This increased fluidity of information in turn leads to greater accessibility. Instead of physical property being passed along manually, the virtual circulation of digital property creates an expansive network expanding the web worldwide. This increased accessibility makes protection of digital property more complex, as the information can be possessed by numerous people at once without concern for the original source. [9] [8]This continuous process of copying material to be shared with the world can lead to the degradation of content quality as well. [8] Original content can be altered intentionally for example with effects on images and videos, or unintentionally with the composition of pixels degrading or content being lost in the transitional process.


With increasing quantifiable data online and on computers, passwords and passcodes have grown more prevalent in cyber space. Digital property can be protected through patents, copyright, and trademark laws, but if the individual proprietors don’t take steps to safe-guard their personal digital belongings through passwords, legislation can do little. The privacy breach that the expansive network of internet users poses to personal digital property can be minimized by strong passwords and diversification of these passwords between different accounts. [14] Many online entities are doing their part to assist users in creating newer, stronger passwords in order to protect their customers personal information and avoid any negative publicity on the corporate side. A method known as nudging is commonly used where websites display pop-ups, occasionally when a user logs-in, encouraging the user to update their password.[15] There can be many different reasons to nudge a user, most commonly this is due to the user retaining the same password for a lengthy amount of time, attempted theft or hack, and as a requirement for employees for various companies. [16] In addition to encouraging users to create strong passwords, many platforms nowadays offer two-factor authentication as a means of furthering the your account security to ensure protection of your online property and data.

Violations of patents, copyrights, and trademarks

Copyright, Trademark, and Patent Symbols[17]

Current legislation regarding digital property attempts to set boundaries and sanctions as punishment for infringing on intellectual and contractual property. Patents, copyrights, and trademarks are violated constantly, as artists and inventors have difficulty distinguishing inspiration from originality. As Snapper details about plagiarism, authorization to digital property is outlined with very fine lines, and interpretation of patent and copyright laws is difficult. [18]

Barack Obama "Hope" Poster

Barrack Obama "Hope" Campaign Poster [19]

An example of a digital property rights violation that recently occurred was with a "Hope" campaign poster for Barrack Obama. The original source of the photo before the editing was obscured due to the advanced entanglement of digital property circulating the internet. Shepard Fairey, the artist credited with creating the rendition piece, originally discovered the unaltered photo through a quick Google search. The photo was originally published in a 2007 story at, but was later to be found to have been taken by a photographer named Mannie Garcia in April of 2006 at a National Press Club event. Following the events, Fairey chose to file a declaratory judgement suit against the AP on February 9th, 2008. Later, on March 11th of that same year, AP filed counterclaims. [20]


Legislation pertaining to digital property has been poorly defined because it is a developing concept that lacks clear cut legislation like similar property regulations which define tangible and intangible property rights. Digital property legislation fails to define how the transfer, the inheriting, or the selling of digital assets are defined within internet spaces and this is problematic because internet spaces are becoming saturated with notion of the "digital asset".[4] With rapidly evolving technology, and society's cultural and business practices changing in response, the legislative process is slow in comparison. Passing new laws proves to take much longer than the invention of new technological resources and the acceptance of these advancements by society. Legislation not being able to keep pace with rapid innovation in the technology field has resulted in further ethical dilemmas when determining the proper response to conflicts in digital property.


  1. “State-by-State Digital Estate Planning Laws”. Everplans. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  2. 2.0 2.1 The Elder Law Report, Vol. XXV, Number 1
  3. van Niekerk, A. J (2007). "Strategic management of media assets for optimizing market communication strategies, obtaining a sustainable competitive advantage and maximizing return on investment: An empirical study" Journal of Digital Asset Management 3(2): 89.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Toygar, Alp; Rohm, C.E. Taipe Jr.; and Zhu, Jake (2013) "A New Asset Type: Digital Assets," Journal of International Technology and Information Management: Vol. 22: Iss. 4, Article 7.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Lupton, Deborah. “Routledge Handbook of Physical Cultural Studies.” Routledge Handbook of Physical Cultural Studies, London:Routledge.
  6. Entertainment Software Association. "Breakdown of U.S. Computer and Video Game Sales from 2009 to 2017, by Delivery Format." Statista - The Statistics Portal, Statista,, Accessed 28 Apr 2019
  7. “Did You Know Intellectual Property Is Protected Under the Constitution?” U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 19 Dec. 2017,
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 “US6314409B2 - System for Controlling Access and Distribution of Digital Property.” Google Patents, Google,
  9. 9.0 9.1 “The Digital Dilemma.” Google Books,
  10. “Digital Property Frequqently Asked Questions” American Bar Association. 01 Apr. 2019. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  11. “A Helpful Overview Of All Your Digital Property And Digital Assets”. Everplans. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  12. Floridi, Luciano, and Matteo Turilli. "The Ethics of Information Transparency". Ethics and Information Technology. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  13. How Target Figured Out a Teen Girl was Pregnant Before Her Father Did. Forbes. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  14. Adams, Anne, et al. “Making Passwords Secure and Usable.” SpringerLink, Springer, London, 1 Jan. 1997,
  15. Renaud, Karen, and Verena Zimmermann. “Guidelines for Ethical Nudging in Password Authentication.” SAIEE Africa Research Journal, South African Institute of Electrical Engineers, June 2018,
  16. Renaud, Karen, et al. “Lessons Learned from Evaluating Eight Password Nudges in the Wild.” 2017.
  17. “Patents, Copyrights and Trademarks – Oh My!” Shenandoah Valley,
  18. Snapper, John. “The Matter of Plagiarism: What, Why, and It.” The Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics, by Kenneth Einar. Himma and Herman T. Tavani, John Wiley & Sons, 2008, pp. 533–552.
  19. Scott, Mac. “Obama Hope Poster - Shepard Fairey (2008).” Medium. 15 Oct. 2017. Retrieved April 28, 2019.
  20. Fisher III, William W., Frank Cost, Shepard Fairey, and Meir Feder. "Reflections on the hope poster case." Harv. JL & Tech. 25 (2011): 243.