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The world is shifting into digital gear at a rapid pace and everyone is racing to stay ahead. Video games, eBooks, music, movies, and TV shows. You name it, there’s probably a digital market for it. And while digital is awesome in many ways, it definitely isn’t perfect.

On the one hand, digital media has made it far easier for independent artists and creators to break into their respective markets. Indie games through Steam, indie music through Soundcloud, indie eBooks through Amazon, etc. As an aspiring indie myself, this is a trend I can get behind 100 percent.

Plus, digital media is generally more convenient. Nobody can argue with that. But is that reason enough to jump ship and abandon your CDs and DVDs? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s take a quick look at the pros and cons. You might find that it’s actually better to wait.

Digital Ownership Is a Lie

The most damning flaw in digital media — at least according to the current structure of digital distribution — is that just because you buy it doesn’t mean you own it. This can be a strange concept to wrap your head around, especially if you grew up during the reign of physical discs and cassettes.

When you buy a CD, a DVD, a book, or a board game, you literally own that physical medium and the specific content it contains. It’s yours and you can do whatever you want with it (as long as you don’t separate the content from the physical medium).

drawbacks-digital-ownership

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This isn’t true when you make a digital purchase. Legally speaking, you’re paying for the right to download and listen (music), watch (movies), or read (eBooks) whatever it is you bought. In other words, you’re licensing the content. There’s no physical medium to own.

So, for example, if you breach the license in some way or the license terms change at some point in the future, you could lose access to something for which you have already paid. Your entire digital library could be revoked in the blink of an eye (which has actually happened on Steam before Why I’m No Longer Buying Games On Steam [Opinion] Why I’m No Longer Buying Games On Steam [Opinion] Steam is now approaching 10 years old. Its impact has been undeniable. Millions of gamers enjoy the service’s seamless community services, low prices and excellent selection. I have been one of them – until now.... Read More ). Are you comfortable paying for something you won’t own?

Digital Resale Is Impossible

The issue of digital ownership has other practical implications beyond legalese and hypothetical licensing scenarios. For example, can you sell something that you don’t own? The obvious answer is “No”, but when you apply that to your digital collection, suddenly it becomes a bit confusing.

Think about the used media market. You buy a certain book, DVD, or board game. You have fun with it for a while, but eventually it loses its luster and you don’t want it any more. You list it on eBay (or a seller-friendly eBay alternative Fed Up With eBay? Here Are Some Worthy (And Cheaper) Alternatives For Sellers Fed Up With eBay? Here Are Some Worthy (And Cheaper) Alternatives For Sellers When you want to sell your excess junk online, where do you go? For most people, the one and only answer is eBay. With millions of daily users, it only seems logical to use the... Read More ) and sell it for some extra cash.

drawbacks-digital-resale

Seems pretty mundane, right? It’s a win-win situation. You walk away with the recuperated value of whatever it is that you sold. The buyer walks away with whatever he or she wanted but at a discounted price. Everyone’s happy.

But you can’t sell digital files because of the licensing terms. That means that every digital purchase you make is a 100 percent sunk cost. You cannot extract any value from it. It’s worthless. You also can’t buy used goodies from others at reduced prices. It’s effectively “full price or nothing” now.

Similarly, if you’re on your deathbed and you want to bequeath your massive library of digital textbooks and fictional adventures, you can’t. Upon death, your access to all of that stuff is legally revoked.

Sharing Is Caring… And Illegal

This digital ownership thing is turning out to be a real pain, isn’t it? The bad news is that we’re not done yet. There’s another drawback to digital ownership (or the lack thereof) that affects all of us: you can’t share your files!

Think about physical media. If you want to lend your book, DVD, or board game to a friend or family member, you can. You just hand it over to them and they’ll hand it back to you when they’re done with it. That’s how we have always done things, and it works. But digital switches that up.

drawbacks-digital-filesharing

How would you lend a digital file to a friend? The obvious method is to copy it and send it over to them. Unfortunately, this kind of file-sharing counts as Internet piracy — even if you don’t use file-sharing networks! We can argue whether or not piracy is a good thing 4 Ways In Which Internet Piracy Can Be a Good Thing [Opinion] 4 Ways In Which Internet Piracy Can Be a Good Thing [Opinion] Back in January, users of the Internet were faced with an interesting phenomenon - the SOPA/PIPA blackout. When American legislators introduced a bill that would give unprecedented power to the government over the Internet, consumers... Read More , but the law is the law.

Well, what if you give rather than copy the file? That’s a valid option as long as the digital file isn’t locked with digital rights management What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It's So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is DRM & Why Does It Exist If It's So Evil? [MakeUseOf Explains] Digital Rights Management is the latest evolution of copy protection. It’s the biggest cause of user frustration today, but is it justified? Is DRM a necessary evil in this digital age, or is the model... Read More (DRM). There are various DRM techniques out there, but they all aim for the same thing: ensuring only the one who buys it can use it.

So, lending is out of the question unless you also lend your account or device. Unfortunately, companies tend to prohibit the sharing of accounts and devices for this very reason. Then again, companies like Amazon have found ways to incorporate digital lending into their service (which you can get with Amazon Prime 6 Amazon Prime Benefits You Might Be Ignoring Right Now 6 Amazon Prime Benefits You Might Be Ignoring Right Now Scratch the surface. Amazon Prime has so many more benefits that people have forgotten about or simply don't realize exist. Read More ).

Data Storage Costs Money

Okay, that’s enough about digital ownership. There are other downsides that you should be aware of, such as the nature of digital storage itself.

When you buy a board game or book, you only need physical space. When you buy a CD or DVD, the physical medium itself comes with enough storage space to hold the digital content. But when we move into full digital territory, something strange happens.

You have to pay for data storage! Purchasing a digital file gives you the right to download that file, but it’s up to you whether or not you have enough space for it once downloaded. And since digital files are getting bigger and bigger (ultra HD 4K videos are huge), you’re going to need to buy bigger hard drives 5 Things You Need to Consider Before Buying a Hard Drive 5 Things You Need to Consider Before Buying a Hard Drive Buying a hard drive? It's not that difficult if you know a few basic tips. We've assembled the most important features of a modern storage drive and what you should buy. Read More if you want to store it all.

drawbacks-digital-data-storage

In other words, when you buy physical, you get the content and the storage for said content all in one convenient package. When you buy digital, you end up paying twice: once for the content and once for your own storage space.

What about Internet bandwidth? For those of us who have bandwidth caps on Internet usage How To Meter & Manage Computer Bandwidth Usage How To Meter & Manage Computer Bandwidth Usage Unlimited bandwidth is the dream of every geek, but unfortunately, it’s not always available. Caps are one way for service providers to squeeze extra money out of existing services, so there have been many attempts... Read More , we’re actually paying three times. You buy access to the file, you dedicate some of your precious storage to hold that file, and you waste a portion of your limited Internet to download that file. Yikes!

Data Storage Is Risky

The nature of digital media comes with another drawback, which is the lack of longevity. Even though physical objects can break, they’re still inherently more stable than something as fickle as a digital file on your computer.

For example, consider malware. It can be surprisingly easy to catch a malicious virus Viruses, Spyware, Malware, etc. Explained: Understanding Online Threats Viruses, Spyware, Malware, etc. Explained: Understanding Online Threats When you start to think about all the things that could go wrong when browsing the Internet, the web starts to look like a pretty scary place. Read More that wipes out your hard drive. When that happens, you can say “Goodbye” to your digital library.

Even if malware isn’t a threat to you, you still have to worry about the fact that hard drives don’t last forever How to Care for Your Hard Drives and Make Them Last Longer How to Care for Your Hard Drives and Make Them Last Longer Sometimes an early death is the fault of the manufacturer, but more often than not, hard drives fail earlier than they should because we don't take care of them. Read More . Are you prepared to lose everything when you wake up one morning to a dead hard drive? Sure, you can download those files again, but it will be at the expense of your time and bandwidth.

drawbacks-digital-fickle-files

And that’s assuming that the content provider’s servers are still operational. What if Amazon, iTunes, or Steam shut up shop? All of that content you paid for is suddenly made unavailable and you’re left high and dry.

And if you want to keep digital backups 6 Safest Ways to Backup & Restore Your Files in Windows 7 & 8 6 Safest Ways to Backup & Restore Your Files in Windows 7 & 8 By now, we're sure you've read the advice over and over: Everyone needs to back up their files. But deciding to back up your files is only part of the process. There are so many... Read More , that’s more space that you need to pay for.

I’m not saying that physical discs are impervious to damage. Yes, discs can snap in half. Yes, your house could burn down and consume all of your physical media. But my point is that, all things being equal, one physical disc is surely safer than one digital file. This may or may not be a big deal to you, but it’s a point worth considering.

Physical vs. Digital: Who Wins?

Despite all of these downsides, I think most of us probably prefer digital over physical. The ownership issues will likely fade into the background over the next few years and digital security will improve Change Your Bad Habits & Your Data Will Be More Secure Change Your Bad Habits & Your Data Will Be More Secure Read More as people learn the right steps to take.

But these reasons are proof that going full digital is not always the smartest move, so don’t feel bad if you want to stick with your collections of CDs, DVDs, and dead-tree books Books Suck: Why I Love My Kindle More Than Dead Trees Books Suck: Why I Love My Kindle More Than Dead Trees Modern e-readers hold thousands of novels, weigh next to nothing, have built in lights, and don't give you a concussion when they hit your nose. Read More .

Have you gone full digital? Or do you prefer the stability of physical media? What made you sway one way or the other? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Image Credits: CD and DVD Via Shutterstock, Pile of DVDs Via Shutterstock, Ebay Cash Via Shutterstock, Pirate Laptop Via Shutterstock, Hard Drive Stack Via Shutterstock, Deleted File Via Shutterstock

  1. sally
    November 1, 2016 at 6:14 am

    I am in the middle of a media upgrade right now actually. Taking us from DVD to BRD. We did go mostly digital for a few years, theres just so many strings, and ads in the content, and the fact that we don't actually own it, really. So we found a used Yamaha BRP on eBay for a bit over 100$ and started building in August. Last week I boxed up a ton of DVD's we have now moved over and sent them to a friend, along with my dvd portable player, and our Home Theatre System DVD 5 disc changer.

    There is something to be said for owning what you buy. Which is becoming less and less these days, people don't own their cars, they dont own their homes(and likely won't ever because they won't make it 30 years in todays econ), their satellite tv equipment, or their data(media).

    The argument for thinner lighter, ect.. I get it, but it comes at great expense of usability and longevity.

    There are so many cheap titles on BluRay now its so very cost effective to move over. The quality upgrade is amazing, which again you won't be getting in digital movies, HD-Yes well HD means its 720p. Sorry, but 720p isn't much better than 480i, which is barely tolerable on an upscale. so if you pay for SD you get 480i, if you pay for HD you get 720p, but you sure as heck aren't getting 1080p at 25gb a shot, thats would be way too much for the cloud to store and make it stretch. so you loss net quality as well.

    Digital has its place, just not--- In Place Of.

  2. Christine Sullivan
    October 26, 2016 at 1:45 am

    As an artist I prefer the physical product bought and sold...I see my cds everywhere on internet and am not benefiting at all,as it gets lost in the tsunami of product....it's sad and frustrating to.not be in control of my own product..I know.I am old school and not so tech savvy..........

  3. thomas t
    June 25, 2016 at 5:52 am

    Jews ruin everything.

  4. SJD
    April 15, 2016 at 3:18 pm

    I buy CDs every now and then but I'd rather buy downloads because of space...DVDs I'll still buy physical.

  5. New Mexico Mark
    January 18, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    Good article, Joel. I know this is a late comment, but I thought I'd toss this into the mix:

    1. Paying for storage. Some of the cloud services can really be your friend in this arena. For instance, Google Music lets you store up to 50,000 songs for free. In my case, I store locally on a large laptop HDD with an offsite backup drive that I update according to how actively my music collection is being updated. I consider my cloud music storage to be more ephemeral for the reasons listed in the article. With the cost of multi-terabyte drives under $100, the local (drive) storage costs of a large music collection compared to the acquisition costs are trivial.
    2. Paying for bandwidth. All I can say is that your mileage may vary. If you have decent home bandwidth, moving files to/from the cloud is pretty much a non-issue. If that is not a possibility, school, library, or other bandwidth may be freely available.
    3. Paying for digital versions. Some libraries will allow you to download and keep a limited number of songs per week for free. For digital music you purchase online, look for those that allow you to download the digital files and make sure they are not watermarked in case you do decide to share with a friend (against legal advice) and lose control of the music.

    I've wrestled with whether to get rid of my physical CD's, but for now for legal reasons I disassemble the jewel cases, placing the CD into 100-CD spindles and the printed materials into a storage box. This also means that I can still find / loan a CD if I really want to. This solves the storage space, lending, and legal issues for me. Plus, if I decide that I'm really a huge enough audiophile that I can discern the difference between a high-bitrate MP3 and a FLAC or OGG file, I can re-rerip them to my heart's content.

  6. Nicholas
    December 13, 2015 at 6:57 pm

    If you're going digital then you really should be ripping your CD's in FLAC format. MP3 is a big no no for longevity of your digital media. I've got over 1600 CD's and i ripped everyone into FLAC 2 years ago. I've also never purchased or played a CD since. I've kept hold of the CD's purely because of the many years I'd spent collecting them but I'm seriously thinking it may be time to let them go.

    • Nicholas
      December 13, 2015 at 7:02 pm

      I should also add that I have my digital media stored on a NAS device and can stream everything to anywhere in the house and even over the internet if I'm away from home. Whilst a NAS has some redundancy for a failed drive or two this is by no means a backup. I also have another external HDD that I keep a copy of everything on and this is located at my parents house. I probably pick it up once every few months and upload any new media and then take it back. This is a must really as if I were to get burgled then everything would be lost if I didn't do this.

  7. Ben Taylor
    August 12, 2015 at 12:22 am

    Here is the thing, you can do both with a physical copy though. You can upload music to your computer from the disc and keep it on the computer. You can transfer a physical copy to a digital copy. Also, if you keep track of every album that you have and you lose all those that you paid for, you can pirate them off of the Internet. You paid for your service, you did your service. The only reason I buy physical copies of CD's is for the booklet.

  8. Leslie Noland
    July 6, 2015 at 12:32 am

    I buy mainly DVDs and CDs. If I don't want it enough to keep or if it is pretty much the only song by an artist which interests me, I may purchase the MP3 but that's pretty rare. Movies I just want to see once I might stream if the price is reasonable (it usually isn't). Books I want to keep I buy as books -- if I just want to read it I will buy it for my Kindle. I will convert Cds to MP3s for convenience -- perhaps someday I will do the same with my DVDs. To me, the primary downside of physical media is space -- I've run out of it -- but I much prefer the relative permanence of the physical media (nothing is permanent, but even if it hadn't been for the recent revival of interest in vinyl, I suspect that if I wanted to listen to the pop, click and hiss of my 1500+ record albums, I would still be able to find some equipment to play them).

    To me, the saddest thing about the "digital revolution" is, precisely, the throw-away nature of it. I suspect that most of the younger generation, who largely drive it, think nothing of just erasing stuff they don't listen to anymore to make room for something new. How many anecdotes are there floating around of someone who became a fan of the blues because they discovered their father's old album collection after he died, or someone who became a fan of some classic rock groups from the 60's because they came across a stack of interesting looking albums at a yard sale? How many similar stories do you think you're likely to hear from someone who found their dad's old MP3 player in the attic? Without the physical media the art and artists alike have become or are becoming largely disposable and I fear our culture will be all the worse for it. Like I said -- nothing is permanent; a lot of music would never have become a classic and there are plenty of forgettable old albums sitting at the bottom of landfills but the difference is, digital is pretty much disposable by nature.

  9. Dennis in Japan
    May 22, 2015 at 3:33 am

    Don't forget about dangerous Magnetic pulses!

    • Joel Lee
      June 26, 2015 at 3:54 am

      Oh lol, totally forgot about that. I used to be so afraid of magnets near anything electronic. (Obviously they're not THAT dangerous but I was young and stupid...)

  10. likefunbutnot
    May 21, 2015 at 9:07 pm

    There is a single computer in my home that has what I'm just going to call effectively unlimited local storage (48 drive bays spread across two chassis + a tape library for backup). The whole thing takes up a little more than .1m^3 (4 feet^3) and costs about $35 a month to power. In three years, the ridiculous amount of hardware it takes to maintain what I have currently will be available for under $1500 total and will fit in a standard ATX chassis, but I'd far rather have the setup that lets me instantly access all of that data regardless of my physical location than have dozens of binders full of discs of one sort or other and slow disc carousels that only expose a fraction of my media collection to one viewing device at a time.

    • Joel Lee
      June 26, 2015 at 3:55 am

      I take it you don't miss the tactile experience of physical media? Of course I prefer digital, but thirty years down the line, when *everything* is digital, I think I might miss some sense of the physical.

      • likefun butnot
        June 29, 2015 at 2:25 pm

        @Joel Lee,
        I keep discs, front covers and booklets for CDs and SACDs I've collected. I only keep media for video if the purchase included something unique. I do make an effort to read liner notes if they are significant (e.g. the ~50 pages included with each of the scores for the Lord of the Rings movies) but I don't think I've ever gone back and read one a second time.

        There are over a dozen bookcases in my home. I don't need any more physical experiences of media. The value isn't found on paper or plastic but in the words or notes.

  11. ReadandShare
    May 21, 2015 at 6:35 pm

    Pretty much all my music is in mp3 format -- stored locally and also backed up in the cloud.

    My next step is to "rip" movies off my store-purchased DVD's -- so I can access/watch them anywhere. As I haven't started at all, I am not sure which format to use. Would appreciate if folks can suggest a format that is as ubiquitous, easy to play, and "DRM free" as my music mp3's.

    • Joel Lee
      June 26, 2015 at 3:56 am

      Going by the shift in the torrenting world, .MP4 seems to be the standard for video these days.

  12. Leah
    May 21, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    I hate how much space CDs take up but if it's a band I do like I'd rather have their physical album than just digital downloads. I like having the music on my computer and being able to transfer it to my phone and all that, but I also like having the physical CD with booklet. For my favorite bands I still buy CDs.

    As for DVDs, I still buy them because I can't watch digital copies everywhere yet. Some TVs haven't been upgraded yet and crowding around a laptop is not an option.

    • Joel Lee
      June 26, 2015 at 3:58 am

      Have you considered hooking up your laptop to your TV? Or is your TV too old for that?

      • Leah C
        June 26, 2015 at 2:52 pm

        We've done it a few times.

  13. Jason
    May 21, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    I still have most of CDs, though I have none of my DVDs anymore. My music has been ripped to hard drives, but the original discs are still here for proper back-up. I also prefer to read real books rather than ebooks.

    When it comes to downloaded material, as far as I'm concerned, if I paid for it it's mine to do with as I please. Just as I can copy and share any CD/cassete, or book for that matter, I can do the same with any downloaded file. Selling copies is another story entirely.

    Regarding "licensing" of material purchased for download, it's a bogus concept. I have never met anyone who has signed a contract for licensing any music, movie, book, or software purchased online. And, no, checking a little box that says "I understand and agree" before you cans use what you already paid for is not equivalent to signing a contract in order to receive and use someone else's property. Technically, any such EULA is null and void unless agreed to prior to the transaction.

    • Joel Lee
      June 26, 2015 at 3:59 am

      Do you have any legal sources for any of that? Sounds shady to me, though I'd love to be surprised and read that it is indeed true.

  14. dvous
    May 21, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Um, Doc, laserdisc was digital too....

    The best word word to use to describe VHS, vinyl LPs and cassette tapes is "analogue". Until the latter half of the 20th century, all music released commercially was recorded in an analogue method. Digital recording technology did not come into widespread commercial use until the 1970s, and home user digital content and playback not until the 1980s. While analogue playback devices and content such as video and cassette tape persisted in a relatively widespread manner until the 1990s, the vast majority of the newer content was recorded (and possibly mastered) digitally, but published on analogue media.

  15. HaWo
    May 21, 2015 at 2:33 pm

    Did You ever heard of backup ?
    How long can you read CDs/DVDs ?
    What is with space occupied ?
    Where do You store 30000+ music titles ?

  16. Doc
    May 21, 2015 at 1:38 pm

    Um, CDs and DVDs are still "digital." VHS, cassette tapes, laserdisc and vinyl are "pre-digital." I think what you meant was "don't believe you own an online-only streaming license," which means DRM encumbrance and loss of resale rights.

  17. charmingguy
    May 21, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    I am still old school and a fervent music lover. My rule has always been that if I like 50% of the tracks plus one I will buy the cd. If it is less I download the tracks I like and keep that on my HD and on Mega.
    There is also another argument for cd's. The quality of HI-Fi sound. These days there are plenty of folks who do not know how music is supposed to sound. All the i whatevers they use are inferior sound quality compared to listening to a proper sound system (amplifier/speakers).

    For me the physical deal always wins. Sadly the only country in the world where the cd still wins over downloads is Japan.

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