With the current popularity of music and TV streaming services, the digital format is increasingly overtaking the physical. It is common for consumers to simply stream media rather than take the time to get a physical copy.
Many times, this choice is made due to a matter of convenience, especially given the current circumstances. However, the transition to digital media is not as convenient as you might think and in many ways is anti-consumer.
You might have access to an almost limitless number of songs and movies with your favorite streaming service, but you do not own the media. The moment your subscription runs out your access is revoked.
The streaming company’s license to the media can also expire or be revoked which would also remove your access. Suddenly, streaming your favorite movie or album is no longer convenient since its inaccessible.
You might think that you at least own the songs you digitally purchased or that one movie you bought. However, many times there are exceptions in the fine print that can conveniently revoke your digital ownership.
For instance, according to Amazon, for their Prime Video service, if “you violate any terms of… agreement… Amazon, may in its discretion immediately revoke access to the service and to Digital Content without refund of any fees.”
They also explain that they “will not be liable to you if purchased content becomes unavailable” due to “licensing restrictions or other reasons.”
In other words, often times you are paying for a conditional license in order to watch or listen to media. Meanwhile, if you own a physical copy there is no instance of revoking ownership. You can trade, share or even sell it. It is yours to do with as you wish as long you do not distribute it illegally.
There are instances in which you can download content and keep it on a PC or gaming console but if the servers go down or the license is revoked there will be no way to redownload your content. An excellent example of this is the PlayStation 4 title “P.T.”
It was a demo released in 2014 by Konami for an upcoming “Silent Hill” reboot that ended up being canceled. Konami revoked the license and Sony took the demo off the PlayStation store. I had a copy of the game downloaded, however, later on my PlayStation crashed and I had to reset it. After the reset, the title was lost, and I cannot redownload it. There is currently no legal way to play the game without owning a PlayStation that still has it downloaded.
Despite being cost-effective, digital media typically has a surplus price. The companies can market it as more convenient and make a larger profit than they would off physical media since there is no need for manufacturing and distribution. For instance, often times you will find a physical game discounted or on sale whilst the same game will still be full price digitally.
Digital goods also just lack tangibility. The physical versions often times have deleted scenes, artwork or interviews that may not be included with just the digital version. They do not have to stream or buffer which means the content typically has higher picture quality or sound. Vinyl records have high quality large images of artwork and album covers. DVD’s have cool spines and cover artwork. You can get collector’s editions of video games that come with a statue or the soundtrack. The physical nature of the media encourages companies to put extra effort into the products instead of just posting a download or stream link.
I understand the temptation of digital media, especially during the pandemic. I use streaming services and I buy digital goods too. However, if there is an album I really enjoy, I buy a vinyl record of it. If there is a show or movie I love, I might buy a physical copy of it. If the licenses ever get revoked or I cannot afford a subscription, I still have a physical copy that I can use however I want. I enjoy our current ability to choose between the two mediums, but I worry that there is not enough of a financial incentive for companies to leave things the way they are.