On Sunday, February 19, I’ll be on a panel at Boskone 49 on “Digital Estate — Virtual Property OR On the Internet, Nobody Knows You’re Dead.” The other panelists will be security guru Bruce Schneier and technology writer Daniel Dern. This post is, in part, research and practice for the panel.

“All flesh is like grass,” wrote the Apostle Peter, “but the word of the Lord remains forever.” It’s certainly true that words can outlast people. Will yours, if you’ve put them online? Do you always want them to? If you do nothing, Murphy’s Law may prevail. The flames you wrote on Usenet when you were young will survive, but the writing you value most may go down the digital drain.

It’s likely you have resources on many different sites. You might have a blog, a website, and a social networking account, and probably more than one of some of these. If it’s something you’re paying for, it could disappear when the payments stop. If it’s a free site, it might be terminated for inactivity, In either case, there might be material — restricted posts, private data, infrastructure — that no one can capture by looking at your site.

Some social networking and blogging sites allow family members or friends to “memorialize” an account. I’ve successfully requested this on LiveJournal for two friends who died late last year. How this is handled varies from one site to another. LiveJournal retains all posts. Facebook’s policy is to delete all status updates. Facebook’s approach maximizes privacy but could also wipe out information about someone’s last days that isn’t available anywhere else. Yahoo goes even further, giving your heirs no access to your account except the right to request its deletion. (It’s a little morbid to say “you,” but I have to use some pronoun, and it’s your own legacy you have to be most concerned about.)

In the stress and confusion following your death, your information might be lost. Perhaps no one will know what accounts you have or what their passwords are. (Normally the latter is a good thing, but not in this case.) The best plan may be to have a copy of everything that’s valuable on your own computer and to make sure someone in your family knows how to get at it. This is easier than scrambling around multiple websites with multiple accounts. If you do keep information online which you want to survive you, keep a list of accounts and passwords in a secure place, and make sure someone knows it exists.

It may help to put provisions in your will directing the disposal of your important online assets. I’ve seen a claim that Facebook will download the complete contents of a deceased user’s account to an heir, if you’ve specifically requested it. Such provisions may let your heirs override sites’ default policies. Not being a lawyer, I won’t offer any suggestions on how to phrase such directions, and I’m guessing a lot of lawyers don’t know either.

If you’ve written and uploaded stories, poems, or songs, then you might want to take steps to make sure they can legally stay online. A provision in your will to assign your copyrights could help, and — painful as it might be to realize this — your family members aren’t necessarily the best people to assign them to, especially if your works have only literary and not monetary value. Maybe your kids don’t really care for the beautiful fanfic you wrote. If you assign the copyright to someone who does care, it’s less likely to vanish into a legal black hole.

It’s a difficult area to think about and a difficult one to make the right decisions in, but some planning can make a difference.

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