How Long Will Your Blu-Ray Collection Last?

How Long Will Your Blu-Ray Collection Last?

Physical media is very popular these days. Nostalgia, fandom, and streaming burnout have caused certain segments of American society to switch off their Amazon Prime accounts and fire up their Blu-ray players. One of the many advertised benefits of physical media is that it offers a more permanent, definitive form of media ownership than a streaming service. But just how permanent are your Blu-rays? And is physical media really built to last?

I wanted to investigate the lifespan of most physical media products to figure out just how long those products would last. The unsatisfying answer I found was: It all depends. Here’s a quick look at what can (and cannot) be definitively said about the longevity of your home media library.

VHS tapes

Let’s start with a lesser-traversed part of the physical media world: VHS collecting. It’s a well-known fact that VHS tapes degrade with time and that, due to decay of the various chemical elements, they are expected to break down at a rate of 10-20 percent every 10 to 25 years. However, VHS is still a surprisingly hardy medium. While some people would have you believe that the natural VHS lifespan is only about 30 years, I have writeable tapes I recorded in the 1990s that still work just fine. I will also occasionally buy commercially mass-produced VHS tapes for the sake of nostalgia and, yes, while the picture quality typically sucks, they still get the job done (if you’re watching VHS in the year 2024, I suspect you’re not doing it for the picture quality).

Disc life: DVDs vs Blu-Rays

While there might be a few eccentric VHS heads out there, a majority of physical media fans will be collectors of Blu-rays and DVDs. What’s the lifespan of a collection like that? The bad news is this: nobody really knows.

Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of open-source information about the longevity of commercially mass-produced Blu-rays, technically known as read-only discs, or BD-ROMs. The Blu-ray Disc Association, which developed and owns the technology behind the discs, ignored multiple emails I sent them, and the people that I did speak to on the subject couldn’t give me a very specific answer. Problematically, the few studies that do exist that involve tests of Blu-ray longevity generally focus on writable discs, not BD-ROMs. Writeable Blu-rays, known as BD-Rs, tend to have much longer lifespans than read-only discs.

So what’s the best guess for how long your Blu-ray collection will last? The most concise answer we were able to arrive at was: At least 10-20 years.

Ern Bieman, a digital preservationist with the Canadian Conservation Institute, told me that commercially produced Blu-rays—if they’re undamaged and stored correctly—should last at least 20 years. “They could certainly last longer, but you wouldn’t want to bank on it,” Bieman said. “Discs, whether they are optical discs or any other kind of media, are degrading from the day you get them.”

Sadly, the longevity of the DVD is similarly shrouded in mystery. One of the few existing articles on DVD lifespans notes that “little information is available” on “DVD-ROM discs” and that there is therefore “an increased level of uncertainty for their life expectancy. Expectations vary from 20 to 100 years for these discs.”

The scourge of “disc rot”

Blu-rays and other optical discs are made out of polycarbonate substrate, otherwise known as plastic. Environmental factors can degrade or damage a disc’s plastic material over time if it isn’t properly protected, which leads to problems with playability. This phenomenon is widely known as “disc rot.”

Disc rot can result from poor ownership practices. Obviously, if you drop or scratch a disc, it can severely damage its playability. But other environmental contagions can contribute to the degradation of a disc. Excesses of heat and light can damage or warp a disc’s physical makeup, which is why disc owners are encouraged to store them in cool, dark, dry places.

At the same time, disc rot can also be brought on as a result of poor manufacturing practices. I recently received a Blu-ray disc that skipped multiple times during its first run-through. This would seem to signal imperfections in the disc that were baked in during manufacturing. Unfortunately, there isn’t much insight into DVD/Blu-ray manufacturing standards and practices, although most major companies are thought to be reliable. Bootleg versions of movies purchased online may come with poorer manufacturing quality.

What about 4K discs?

One of the newer products in home entertainment is the 4K or Ultra HD disc, which provides higher-quality video and sound. However, this kind of disc may be even more vulnerable to environmental corruption than your typical 1080p Blu-ray or DVD discs. Countless online threads will attest to 4K owners who have had playability problems after a very short period of time. Some reports suggest that this is the result of the disc’s unique format. Jeff Rauseo, a notable voice in the physical media community, has argued that 4K discs hold substantially more data than Blu-ray and DVDs and small scratches or imperfections can cause more substantive disruptions to playability.

Tips for proper disc storage

The common wisdom when it comes to good disc storage practices is pretty straightforward. Ideally, discs should be stored vertically in standard-sized jewel cases. Those cases, in turn, should be stored in a dry, dark, cool place, that doesn’t suffer from too much light exposure. And, of course, when handling your discs you should always hold them by the center hole, so as to avoid scuffing, smudging, or scratching them. If you want to occasionally clean your discs, using an air duster is your best bet.

To rip or not to rip?

Despite its many benefits, physical media doesn’t last forever. If you’re worried about the longevity of your collection, one possible solution is to make a digital copy of it. Thanks to modern technology, it’s quite easy to “rip,” or digitize your videos onto a PC. Problematically, if you’re planning on doing this with a BD-ROM, DVD-ROM, or a copyrighted VHS, such behavior technically violates the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) and is thus illegal, even if you have no intention of re-selling the disc/tape or making money off of it. Still, one legal article on the subject asks the age-old question: Is it really “illegal if you won’t ever get caught?” That question we leave up to the reader to decide.

If you are interested in backing up your home video collection, there are plenty of how-to guides on YouTube and other parts of the web that show you how to rip discs and digitize them. To do that, you’ll need to download some special software and maybe buy an external optical disc reader. Of course, you may run into some snags along the way, and it can also take quite a lot of hard drive space to store high-quality video, so you’ll need to be prepared for some troubleshooting. Once you have a digital copy of your original disc, there are, hypothetically, ways to download those digital copies back onto a writeable Blu-ray disc so you can have a physical backup of your original disc.

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