Last night over pizza and beers with my brothers at the Coppertop Tavern, the topic of movies came up. (Yes, quoting of Ghostbusters occurred.) During the conversation, one of my brothers mentioned that he had accidentally purchased a digital copy of a movie through his cable service provider.
"I own it," he said. "Somewhere."
I've long been leery of the move toward purchasing streaming media. Owning physical media may be passé, but there are a lot of good reasons why having a disc in hand is preferable to having a download available...somewhere...in the cloud. I was all set to write up my arguments when I happened to run across a defense of shiny discs by Tasha Robinson over at A. V. Club (via John August).
Now, let me be clear, I (like Tasha) am not some grumpy old luddite. Er, at least not in this case. I use Hulu regularly, and have been flirting with upgrading to Hulu+ or possibly streaming Netflix. And I'll even admit to torrenting the occasional premium channel show that I just don't care enough to purchase through my cable provider.
For me, it's mostly a matter of convenience. In so many cases, having a disc is simply easier than trying to find a download or stream. As Tasha writes:
In the past year or so, I’ve watched DVDs or Blu-rays in a wilderness cabin, on a plane, on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean, and at resorts in Mexico and the Bahamas—all places where I couldn’t get wi-fi access or even cell-phone reception. I’ve loaned DVDs to friends and taken them to parties without having to burn discs, swap drives, or mourn the death of Megaupload. Bringing a Blu-ray to a relative’s house for family holidays or vacations, I never have to worry about whether their Internet connection is as good as mine, or whether they have an account on the service I want to reach, or a Roku/DVR/PS3/etc. that can access that service, or the right cables to hook my computer into their TV.
She goes on to list a spectrum of technological issues as well, such as the low video quality of streamed media, infrastructure issues, availability of titles (in general and across companies), and so forth. For me these are an issue, but honestly I don't worry about them quite as much. As Tasha acknowledges, streaming technology is getting better, and a zen-like acceptance of Moore's Law will give us the ability to access Blu-ray quality video "instantaneously" soon enough.
What worries me more is the ever-increasing attempt by media companies to control the distribution of content. The shift from disc to download is in reality a shift from ownership to licensing. Tasha states the issue succinctly:
One advantage of owning an actual Blu-ray disc is that I still have access to the contents even if the studio that released it loses the rights or goes out of business. We’ve seen cases over and over where people who think they’ve paid for content and have permanent access to it lose that access, whether it’s Amazon remotely deleting unlicensed books from people’s Kindles or Netflix removing around a thousand titles from its streaming library a few days ago as its contract with Starz ended. As more players enter the streaming market and early leaders like iTunes and Netflix lose access to content, it will only become harder to figure out who currently holds the rights to a given show or film, and which service is showing it legally, if it’s available online at all.
Ownership is, as she acknowledges, only an issue for things one might want to make sure are available in the future. For the myriad of watch-once shows and movies, streaming may be perfectly fine. But there's no way on Whedon's green earth that I'm going to chuck out my box sets of Firefly and Buffy (Note to self: Get box set of Angel) based on the promises of fickle — and, let's be honest, often impotent — entertainment executives that I'll be able to download any episode I want at any time in the future.
So, for the time being anyway, I'll continue to choose discs over downloads. Mostly.