A lot of folks in my online circles are lamenting the inevitable decline of physical media. I myself have shared similar sentiments, so I can’t blame anyone for feeling this way. My local Best Buy is in the process of completely clearing out the DVD and Blu-ray section, Target’s DVD isle has been replaced with books, and Walmart is starting to pull physical Xbox games (at Microsoft’s request). My gut reaction is to be sad about this, but the more I think about it, the more I think that our collective sadness about the loss of physical media may be misplaced.

I am of the strong belief that digital downloads and streaming aren’t the problem; it’s the digital rights management (DRM) that’s the issue.

When I was a kid, I had only one future ambition: when I grow up, I told myself, I want to own a copy of every movie and TV show I like!

In retrospect, that goal seems quaint and easily achievable. What you have to understand is that, as a young person, I had very little money and each video I would purchase was a huge investment. The thought of being able to have a copy of everything seemed like such a far-off dream.

I grew up wearing VHS tapes completely out, constantly keeping them on repeat on my TV (complete with built-in VCR). I would watch my movies time after time after time, until they would barely play in the tape deck any more. When DVDs came out I got a DVD player for Christmas (a bulky, heavy beast of a video player), and would watch movies on repeat until I had memorized every line. I can still quote the majority of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by heart.

In adulthood, I don’t watch movies and TV with the same intensity or obsession as my younger self (I’m just too busy and don’t have the attention span that I used to). But I still love building and maintaining a media collection, and still regularly watch content from my library. I have hundreds of discs, ranging from 4K Blu-rays to DVD box sets, and everything in between. When given the option, I still buy a physical copy of everything I want to own.

I don’t do this because I specifically want a a physical copy of each film or TV show. What I love most about my movie collection isn’t that the majority of it is tangible. Having a digital movie stored on a round disc that I pop into the player isn’t especially important to me. What is important is the ability to watch my content wherever I want. As a Linux user for the past decade and a half, I’ve had to deal with issue after issue of not having content available to me. If I purchase a video from Apple TV (formerly iTunes), it will only play on Apple Devices, or devices that are compatible with the DRM scheme that they use. This rules out my laptop, which is my primary method of viewing content. It also limits me in terms of the types of set-top boxes I can connect directly to my TV. The same goes for other providers as well, such as Google/YouTube (they artificially limit the resolution to 720p for TV shows and 480p for movies), or Amazon (movies are limited to 480p there as well).

Some people enjoy the experience of physical media. They like organizing it and displaying it on shelves, they like looking through their collection to decide what to watch, and they like the act of physically loading a player with a copy of something. For those people, this sadness is perfectly placed. A purely digital experience, where everything is delivered electronically over the internet, will never replicate that experience.

But for me at least, it isn’t the physical copy that I’m wanting, it’s the accessibility and freedom that a physical copy affords. It’s being able to watch the video on my laptop, or my phone, or a homemade media center (such as LibreELEC). It’s being able to lend a copy to a family member, and being able to put it into a video editor so I can make short clips, or turn them into GIFs.

At the end of the day, I don’t really need or want a disc; I just want a file. A file that is not encumbered with DRM. A file that I can copy and backup, and generally exercise a modicum of control over. There have been plenty of instances of movie studios going back in and editing releases, and only making the modified versions available. Right now, physical copies are the best way to preserve original versions, but as long as you are able to store and preserve a digital file containing the original versions, there’s no reason why those can’t persist. In just about every scenario, the benefits of owning a physical copy don’t come down to the physicality of the item, but instead what you are able to practically do with it.

That’s not to say there aren’t benefits to a physical copy, beyond what you get out of just having a file. Being able to sell your unwanted media or purchase used media at a discounted rate is the biggest one I can think of. There are also cases to be made about exclusive bonus features that are only released on physical disc (although there’s no reason why this sort of content can’t be distributed digitally). But there are downsides, too. Physical discs take up a lot of storage space in your home. They are also prone to being lost or damaged, and even suffer from natural degradation over time.

Don’t get me wrong, if I had my druthers, I’d keep physical media around forever. I must admit, though, that once physical media is gone, I won’t be sad. In most cases, the internet is a much better distribution method. File storage is cheap and getting cheaper. SSDs are getting bigger and bigger (so are hard disks, but I’ve had too many awful experiences with them to trust them any more).

Times change, technology improves, and people vote with their dollars. There is a clear and obvious preference for digital downloads and streaming, whether we like it or not.

I don’t think it’s the right fight for us to try and keep physical copies around forever. The right fight, the better fight, is against restrictive DRM.