As the DVD turns 25, why people still love collecting them — even with a shelf life

Cameron Spurrell has been collecting DVDs since 2001 — and even after years of adding to his growing stockpile, he still remembers the first two he and his family rented.

After buying a brand new DVD player, the family brought home rentals of The Majestic, starring Jim Carrey, and Summer Catch, with Freddie Prinze Jr. and Jessica Biel.

“My sister and I sat, and we were like, ‘Special features? Behind the scenes? That’s how they make movies?,'” recalled Spurrell. “It was this surreal thing, because you all of a sudden had more to do with the DVD than you did with VHS.”

DVDs, or digital video discs, were first introduced in Japan in November 1996, meaning they’ve now been in production for 25 years. And while many have moved on — first to Blu-ray Discs, and now to streaming accounts — some still hold tight to their favourite DVDs.

But will these discs last the test of time? According to research published by the Canadian Conservation Institute in 2010 and revised in 2019, the average lifespan of a DVD or Blu-ray is between 10 to 20 years, suggesting the older titles in your library could start to fail.

Holding onto a collection

Spurrell, who has a particular fondness for teen slasher films, points out that not every title he collects is available to stream.

“I’ve got movies on DVD that aren’t even made into DVDs anymore, and [movies] people often forget about,” he said. “A lot of those cult-classic ’90s movies that you might have watched once in 1997, and completely forgot about it ever since.”

Cameron Spurrell’s DVD collection leans toward horror, but mixes in a bit of everything. (Submitted by Cameron Spurrell)

When the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender was first removed from a streaming service a few years ago, DVD collector Ram Saund said it made him realize the value of physical media.

“I just got fed up with the fact that something, even though it is available anywhere, kind of almost has an expiration [date] to it because of licensing,” he said. “It just made sense to have a physical copy in my hand.”

Ram Saund has been upgrading his DVDs to Blu-rays over the years. He looks forward to one day sharing the shows and films in his collection with his newborn son. (Submitted by Ram Saund)

DVDs as accessible

At the Vancouver Public Library, DVDs remain a fixture.

Kay Cahill, the library’s director of collections and technology, says they’re on pace for about 750,000 DVD circulations this year, though she notes that number is about half of what it was in 2019, before the pandemic.

Despite the fact DVDs haven’t fully rebounded, the library plans to keep a strong collection — as long as the content is available, said Cahill.

“I think there’s an interesting sort of equity piece to DVDs,” she said. “Because we also know that they’re popular with people who can’t necessarily afford the paid subscription services or don’t necessarily have the equipment at home or the internet connection to be able to stream.”

Kay Cahill is shown in the DVD section at the downtown branch of the Vancouver Public Library in July 2019. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

The top circulating title for the library this year has been the Oscar-award-winning Parasite, which has been checked out more than 950 times.

How long will your collection last?

While DVDs and Blu-rays could have an average lifespan of 10 to 20 years, some manufacturers, like Sony, say DVDs can last between 30 and 100 years. Others, like Verbatim, say they’re “designed to last up to 100 years.”

Joe Iraci is a retired senior conservation scientist who worked with the Canadian Conservation Institute until 2019. He’s completed a number of studies looking at how these discs age.

The 10- to 20-year time range for DVDs and Blu-rays is based on how the discs fared under prolonged exposure to high heat and humidity, he said.

The cross-section of a DVD±R is illustrated. Unlike a CD, a DVD is actually made of two discs glued together in the middle. Joe Iraci speculates the adhesive layer interacting chemically with the disc could cause problems over the long term as a DVD ages. (Canadian Conservation Institute)

To start, Iraci looked at studies involving gold-plated CD-Rs, which were an industry standard for data storage in the ’90s and early 2000s, concluding these discs could last more than 100 years. With that in mind, he ran the same tests on DVDs and Blu-rays and came up with the 10- to 20-year mark. 

“It’s still a guess, the type of work we did; it’s the only tool we had to make these predictions,” he said.

Iraci said, however, if you store your DVDs in a cool, dry area, the 10 to 20 years could end up being 40 to 60 years.

There are a number of reasons why DVD and Blu-ray Discs could potentially decay faster than audio CDs. But one is that DVDs store more information and layers of data, which are usually tightly packed, leaving a greater possibility for something to go wrong. 

Keeping collections safe

Any collectors wishing to back up their collections are unfortunately out of luck, said Ern Bieman, an information analyst at the Canadian Heritage Information Network.

He points to the 2012 Copyright Modernization Act as a challenge when it comes to preserving commercially available material on DVDs and Blu-rays. 

The changes introduced in that act include rules against circumventing technological protection measures — or the digital locks that a manufacturer can include on a CD, DVD or Blu-ray, preventing users from making copies.

“If you wanted to do a backup for archival purposes, there was a rule that allowed you to,” said Bieman. But he noted that the rule against breaking these digital locks has effectively eliminated that. 

“We have no legal way of getting this content off of those commercial resources anymore.”

To take care of your collection, Bieman recommends storing discs vertically in hard plastic jewel cases, not sleeves, and keeping them in a dark, cool, dry place.

He also notes that if you have to clean a disc, you should use a lint-free cloth and wipe radially, or side to side, as opposed to in a circular motion.

And if you have the money and legal ability, Bieman said you should try to back up your content.

“If money’s no object and you have the time and energy, I would move it over to Flash,” he said. “That would get you through the zombie apocalypse.”

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