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Property Interests in Digital Assets: The Rise of Digital Feudalism

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Natalie Banta

Banta

Property Interests in Digital Assets: The Rise of Digital Feudalism

Abstract

The emergence of digital assets has created a host of new legal questions regarding their status as a property interest. Digital assets consist of intangible interests like e-mail accounts, social media accounts, reward points, and electronic media. These assets seem like a property interest, but because digital assets are a creature of contract, private contracts determine whether an owner can use, sell, transfer, exclude, donate, or dispose of the asset in a testamentary instrument. These digital asset contracts often take an unprecedented step of prohibiting or severely limiting the transfer of digital assets after death. By unilaterally eviscerating a long cherished right of property — the right to devise — these contracts create digital assets that are more akin to a license or tenancy instead of a fee simple absolute. Contractual terms controlling digital assets create a system this Article calls “digital feudalism,” characterized by absolutism, hierarchy, and a concentration of power. This Article examines property interests imbued in digital assets, namely the rights to use, control, exclude, and transfer. It analyzes digital assets under the labor, utilitarian, and personhood theories to justify their existence as a form of property. As a form of property, this Article argues that property law protects an individual’s rights to her digital assets — rights like testamentary disposition that cannot be contracted away. Property law has always mirrored society’s decisions about how to control and allocate resources and our treatment of digital assets are no different. Digital assets themselves function so similarly to property that we must apply traditional property law principles to ensure that our rights over digital assets do not regress into an anti-democratic and archaic form of feudalism in a technologically driven future.

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