We’re big fans of physical media here for our movies at home – but as Brendon reports, it’s not without a few problems.
We keep getting reminders that the VoD films we ‘buy’ from Rakuten, Amazon, iTunes or whoever aren’t actually ours to keep. It says ‘Buy’ on the button, but every now and then, something reminds us that, in legal terms, we’re only being licensed the films. What a con, right?
So it might seem obvious that buying a physical copies of beloved films (and TV shows, exercise workouts, concerts, ‘special interest’ content) is a much more sensible idea. In truth, the same laws apply – as Simon noted recently, even VHS copies of films were prefaced with legalese that explained the limits of what a tape’s owner might do with their ‘purchased’ movie, specifying even where they might view it and with whom – and even giving some sense of how they might lose it.
But it’s not likely that Mickey Mouse is going to come round, banging on doors and taking back Toy Story boxsets, is it? Well, I wouldn’t think so. But in the long term, it might not matter – because your giant collection of discs is already, slowly, rotting away and you might be surprised to hear how quickly you can expect it to wither up and die.
I had a dig around on social media for anecdotes. One friend told me that multiple times during lockdown he got half way through a movie and then the disc stopped working. DVDs and Blu-rays, you may be aware, are coded on multiple levels that are then sandwiched together in the disc, and it only takes one of those levels to ‘corrupt’ before you can forget about playing the full film again. Another described the look of their decaying discs, with milky colours appearing on the surface, or the silicon edges appearing to rot away inside the plastic.
The best one-stop resource for an overview of DVD and Blu-ray mortality that I’ve found is a Canadian government website offering the Canadian Conservation Institute’s data. It hit the ground running with an indictment of recordable media specifically, but then the full report digs into the lifespan of mass-produced media, discs, those of exactly the same physical composition that Simon’s multiple copies of Geostorm were delivered on.
A well-made, perfectly-stored CD, say our Canadian friends, can be expected to live for 50 to 100 years on average. That doesn’t sound awful, I suppose, especially as the compact disc medium was only invented in 1979. Most of them should still be alive – especially now early hiccups with the inking and labelling of discs that was causing premature rot have been overcome.
But read-only DVDs and BDs, the kind that our beloved Twin Peaks boxsets are made of? Canada’s conservators trust them to last no more than 10 to 20 years “on average”.
I’ve got several thousand DVDs and Blu-rays here in my flat (and a very big guard dog and one of those Entrapment laser grids, so don’t even try it). These alarming life expectancy stats from Canada sent me in a hurry to pull some discs from my collection, largely at random, and to give them a test. It took me only 13 discs to find one that would no longer work at all, and 11 more to find another.
These (hardly scientific) results were actually rather stomach churning. One of my first impulses was to blame myself, but I’ve looked at the best practice for disc handling in the same Canadian report, and I think I’ve been at least moderately well behaved. “Hold discs by the centre hole and the outer edge between the forefinger and the thumb,” they say, and “store discs vertically.” Check and check.
But here’s where I slipped up. “Paper or plastic sleeves are not recommended as they provide little physical protection, they may interact chemically with the disc and/or they can scratch the disc surfaces.”
A few years ago, I sent all of my original DVD and Blu-ray packaging to recycle and I put the discs in a series of heavy-duty suitcases fitted out with rows of hanging plastic envelopes. In effect, I need one less room in my house now. But in doing this, I may have risked early demise for many of my movies and TV shows.
Nonetheless, even perfectly-stored discs have an expiry date. I might love physical media for all sorts of reasons – while it works, the film is always there and the ghost of Steve Jobs can’t take it from you, and it’s there at a good bitrate too – but it’s certainly not permanent. Compared to, say, a vinyl record or, especially, a book, data on discs is labile stuff.
Missing from the Canadian study are DVDs and Blu-rays made by M-Disc, a company that promised a 1000-year lifespan for its products, readable by most drives and not tremendously expensive. For whatever reason, the M-Disc did not catch on and the company went bankrupt in 2016. You can still buy writable discs that use its technology, but as long as it’s not what StudioCanal are using to serve up Paddington, it’s not the big fix to our disc rot problems.
So what to do?
Some suggest that ripping and copying discs seems like a solution, if an extremely time-consuming and expensive one. And that’s before you get to the legality of it (or otherwise). Here in the UK, the exception for ‘private copying’ was snuffed out in 2015, and since then, copyright holders can prosecute people who make copies of DVDs and Blu-rays even as their own, personal back-up. Copying, recopying and re-re-copying discs seems better suited to the copyright holders and their archiving processes.
The answer for audiences seems to be that actually buying a movie, owning it for life, and passing it on to children, grandchildren or a favourite local dogs’ home is technically a legal impossibility and a practical nightmare. The best we can do is look after the discs we have – keep them in jewel cases if we can, always vertically, and clean and handle them The Canadian Way.
And then, in a few years, re-buy our whole collection again… providing it’s all still in print.
Now please excuse me while I go watch Todd Berger’s brilliant comedy-mystery The Scenesters again, before it rots into unplayability and my life is noticeably, uselessly, worse off…
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