On Physical & Virtual Media

Too long have physical and virtual formats been at odds with one another, distant siblings who although share a common ancestor - content - seem reluctant to work with each other. There has been some recent reconciliation but there is a long way to go.

Beginning around 2007, a handful of studios released movies on physical formats such as DVD and Blu-ray which have come with a digitised version, marketed as a “digital copy”. This allows the content which you own the rights to watch to be viewed however the purchaser wants, or at least in an ideal world. Whether it be on a wide screen TV with surround sound & popcorn via a DVD or on a tablet computer with headphones on the train commuting to work, the consumer simply cares about consuming. There has been complaints about the way this “extra feature” has been marketed as well as the digital rights management (DRM) these discs come burdened with.

This is only the first step and the same ideology should be applied to other mediums, such as music and print, as well.

If I order a physical music album online, I should get immediate (if not a pre-order) access to download or stream that content. The physical format is something I love to own, but the digital version gives me a lot more flexibility and is usually how I listen to ninety percent of my music. Why should I have to wait for the copy to arrive, face restrictions and annoyance in making my own digital versions when the distributor could provide it so much more easily.

A similar model should be applied to books. Many web books nowadays come with a dead tree variety along with a beautiful PDF version or an ePub text based version. The PDF version is usually available straight away, as it is the publishing format which is sent to the printers and is sold as a standalone copy at a discounted price compared to the printed edition. Some publishers provide discounted bundles if you buy both the printed and PDF versions. But I feel that if I have purchased the more expensive printed version, I should be able to download the PDF and start enjoying the content straightaway. 8 Faces is a limited edition print magazine with an alternative PDF version. People who ordered the printed version received a PDF copy free of charge and those who missed out on the limited print run can enjoy the content by purchasing the PDF version.

It seemed unfair that those who bought the physical edition would have to wait two weeks before they could read the magazine — whereas those buying the PDF edition were able to read it immediately — so it made sense to send all 'physical' customers a PDF as soon as possible.

Elliot Jay Stocks, creator of 8 Faces

The distribution of magazines is a rapidly changing and important format. The magazine industry has been shaken up in recent years, after declining sales a life boat was sent in the form of Apple’s iPad. The size and format of the device has allowed magazines to port their content over to a digital distribution and has given them access to a massive audience. However, there are still a few important details which need to be ironed out of the system to keep subscriptions to the physical editions worth investing in. If you buy the magazine from the shop, you should be able to access that content via the digital iPad version, it appears that “People Magazine Subscribers to Receive Free Access on iPads” which is great news. This gives the consumer the freedom to read the content however they like, whether it be a quick glance on the iPad while watching TV or on the bus with the paper version. Similarly, if you subscribe to the magazine on a yearly basis, then you should also get that subscription to the digital format - I think this is what the publishers are aiming for, but restrictions with iTunes and lack of subscription functionality hasn’t help push this feature.

Downloadable content is something that shouldn't necessarily be available for all content types. Movies are a perfect example of this, and the current practice of including a digital format on physical discs is the best compromise. Movies are primarily a one time activity, watched at home during a time slot. Providing streaming or downloading of the movie when a physical copy is ordered seems wasteful as there is a substantial cost involved in transferring the level of data required for a high quality movie. Because movies are usually only watched once, the need to duplicate the distribution is unnecessary. This is why movies have a good balance of either or for physical and downloadable content. Movies as streaming revenue is a great alternative which perfectly compliments how the medium is consumed. I see the digitised copy on physical discs are an added extra, not so much added value.

There is some extra work required by the content provider to give access to multiple formats. If they are already selling different versions, the most expensive version - the physical copy - should come with access to the cheaper digital copies as part of the price. Giving the consumer the choice is a great solution, but segmenting and charging extra for virtual versions when a physical edition is purchase is a practice that I hope will soon fade away.