Digital distribution

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Digital distribution, also referred to as content delivery, online distribution, or electronic software distribution, among others, is the delivery or distribution of digital media content such as audio, video, e-books, video games, and other software. [1]


The term is generally used to describe distribution over an online delivery medium, such as the Internet, thus bypassing physical distribution methods, such as paper, optical discs, and VHS videocassettes. The term online distribution is typically applied to freestanding products; downloadable add-ons for other products are more commonly known as downloadable content. With the advancement of network bandwidth capabilities, online distribution became prominent in the 21st century, with prominent platforms such as Amazon Video, and Netflix's streaming service starting in 2007. [2]

Content distributed online may be streamed or downloaded, and often consists of books, films and television programs, music, software, and video games. Streaming involves downloading and using content at a user's request, or "on-demand", rather than allowing a user to store it permanently. In contrast, fully downloading content to a hard drive or other forms of storage media may allow offline access in the future.

Specialist networks known as content delivery networks help distribute content over the Internet by ensuring both high availability and high performance. [3] Alternative technologies for content delivery include peer-to-peer file sharing technologies. Alternatively, content delivery platforms create and syndicate content remotely, acting like hosted content management systems.

Unrelated to the above, the term "digital distribution" is also used in film distribution to describe the distribution of content through physical digital media, in opposition to distribution by analog media such as photographic film and magnetic tape (see digital cinema).

Impact on traditional retail

The rise of online distribution has provided controversy for the traditional business models and resulted in challenges as well as new opportunities for traditional retailers and publishers. Online distribution affects all of the traditional media markets including music, press, and broadcasting. In Britain, the iPlayer, a software application for streaming television and radio, accounts for 5% of all bandwidth used in the United Kingdom. [4]


The move towards online distribution led to a dip in sales in the 2000s; CD sales were nearly cut in half around this time. [5] One such example of online distribution taking its toll on a retailer is the Canadian music chain Sam the Record Man; the company blamed online distribution for having to close a number of its traditional retail venues in 2007–08. [6] One main reason that sales took such a big hit was that unlicensed downloads of music were very accessible.[ citation needed ] With copyright infringement affecting sales, the music industry realized it needed to change its business model to keep up with the rapidly changing technology. [7] The step that was taken to move the music industry into the online space has been successful for several reasons. The development of lossy audio compression file formats such as MP3 could take 30 MB for a typical 3 minute song and bring it down to 3 MB without any serious loss of quality. [8] Lossless FLAC files can be up to six times larger than an MP3 while, [9] in comparison, the same song might require 30–40 megabytes of storage on a CD. [7] The smaller file size yields much greater Internet transfer speeds.

The transition into the online space has boosted sales, and profit for some artists. [10] [ citation needed ] It has also allowed for potentially lower expenses such as lower coordination costs, lower distribution costs, as well as the possibility for redistributed total profits. [7] These lower costs have aided new artists in breaking onto the scene and gaining recognition.[ citation needed ] In the past, some emerging artists have struggled to find a way to market themselves and compete in the various distribution channels.[ citation needed ] The Internet may give artists more control over their music in terms of ownership, rights, creative process, pricing, and more. In addition to providing global users with easier access to content, online stores allow users to choose the songs they wish instead of having to purchase an entire album from which there may only be one or two titles that the buyer enjoys.

The number of downloaded single tracks rose from 160 million in 2004 to 795 million in 2006 which accounted for a revenue boost from US$397 million to US$2 billion. [7]


Many traditional network television shows, movies and other video content is now available online, either from the content owner directly or from third-party services. YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, DirecTV, SlingTV and other Internet-based video services allow content owners to let users access their content on computers, smartphones, tablets or by using appliances such as video game consoles, set-top boxes or Smart TVs. [11]

Many film distributors also include a Digital Copy, also called Digital HD, with Blu-ray disc, Ultra HD Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray or a DVD.


Some companies, such as Bookmasters Distribution, which invested US$4.5 million in upgrading its equipment and operating systems, have had to direct capital toward keeping up with the changes in technology. The phenomenon of books going digital has given users the ability to access their books on handheld digital book readers. One benefit of electronic book readers is that they allow users to access additional content via hypertext links. These electronic book readers also give users portability for their books since a reader can hold multiple books depending on the size of its hard drive. [12] Companies that are able to adapt and make changes to capitalize on the digital media market have seen sales surge. Vice President of Perseus Books Group stated that since shifting to electronic books (e-books), it saw sales rise by 68%. Independent Publishers Group experienced a sales boost of 23% in the first quarter of 2012 alone. [13]

Tor Books, a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy books, started to sell e-books DRM-free by July 2012. [14] One year later the publisher stated that they will keep this model as removing DRM was not hurting their digital distribution ebook business. [15] Smaller e-book publishers such as O'Reilly Media, Carina Press [16] and Baen Books had already forgone DRM previously.

Video games

Online distribution is changing the structure of the video game industry.[ citation needed ] Gabe Newell, creator of the digital distribution service Steam, formulated the advantages over physical retail distribution as such:

The worst days [for game development] were the cartridge days for the NES. It was a huge risk – you had all this money tied up in silicon in a warehouse somewhere, and so you’d be conservative in the decisions you felt you could make, very conservative in the IPs you signed, your art direction would not change, and so on. Now it’s the opposite extreme: we can put something up on Steam, deliver it to people all around the world, make changes. We can take more interesting risks.[...] Retail doesn’t know how to deal with those games. On Steam [a digital distributor] there’s no shelf-space restriction.

Since the 2000s, there has been an increasing number of smaller and niche titles available and commercially successful, e.g. remakes of classic games. [18] [19] The new possibility of the digital distribution stimulated also the creation of game titles of very small video game producers like Independent game developer [20] [21] and Modders (e.g. Garry's Mod [22] ), which were before not commercially feasible.

The years after 2004 saw the rise of many digital distribution services on the PC, such as Amazon Services, Desura, GameStop, Games for Windows – Live, Impulse, Steam, Origin,, Direct2Drive,, Epic Games Store and GamersGate. The offered properties differ significantly: while most of these digital distributors don't allow reselling of bought games, Green Man Gaming allows this. Another example is which has a strict non-DRM policy [23] while most other services allow various (strict or less strict) forms of DRM.

Digital distribution is also more eco-friendly than physical. Optical discs are made of polycarbonate plastic and aluminum. The creation of 30 of them requires the use of 300 cubic feet of natural gas, two cups of oil and 24 gallons of water. The protective cases for an optical disc is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a known carcinogen. [24]


A general issue is the large number of incompatible data formats in which content is delivered, possibly restricting the devices that may be used, or making data conversion necessary. Streaming services can have several drawbacks: requiring a constant Internet connection to use content; the restriction of some content to never be stored locally; the restriction of content from being transferred to physical media; and the enabling of greater censorship at the discretion of owners of content, infrastructure, [25] and consumer devices.

Decades after the launch of the World Wide Web, in 2019 businesses were still adapting to the evolving world of distributing content digitally—even regarding the definition and understanding of basic terminology. [26]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Streaming media</span> Multimedia delivery method

Streaming media is multimedia that is delivered and consumed in a continuous manner from a source, with little or no intermediate storage in network elements. Streaming refers to the delivery method of content, rather than the content itself.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Video on demand</span> Media distribution system allowing consumers to control playback schedule

Video on demand (VOD) is a media distribution system that allows users to access videos without a traditional video playback device and the constraints of a typical static broadcasting schedule. In the 20th century, broadcasting in the form of over-the-air programming was the most common form of media distribution. As Internet and IPTV technologies continued to develop in the 1990s, consumers began to gravitate towards non-traditional modes of content consumption, which culminated in the arrival of VOD on televisions and personal computers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Steam (service)</span> Video game digital distribution service

Steam is a video game digital distribution service and storefront by Valve. It was launched as a software client in September 2003 as a way for Valve to provide automatic updates for their games, and expanded to distributing and offering third-party game publishers' titles in late 2005. Steam offers various features, like digital rights management (DRM), game server matchmaking, anti-cheat measures, social networking and game streaming services. It provides the user with automatic game updating, saved game cloud synchronization, and community features such as friends messaging, in-game chat and a community market.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Retrogaming</span> Cultural activity with old video games

Retrogaming, also known as classic gaming and old school gaming, is the current playing and collection of obsolete personal computers, consoles, and video games. Usually, retrogaming is based upon systems that are outmoded or discontinued, although ported retrogaming allows games to be played on modern hardware via ports or compilations. It is typically for nostalgia, preservation, or authenticity. A new game could be retro styled, such as an RPG with turn-based combat and pixel art in isometric camera perspective.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Digital goods</span>

Digital goods or e-goods are intangible goods that exist in digital form. Examples are Wikipedia articles; digital media, such as e-books, downloadable music, internet radio, internet television and streaming media; fonts, logos, photos and graphics; digital subscriptions; online ads ; internet coupons; electronic tickets; electronically treated documentation in many different fields; downloadable software and mobile apps; cloud-based applications and online games; virtual goods used within the virtual economies of online games and communities; workbooks; worksheets; planners; e-learning ; webinars, video tutorials, blog posts; cards; patterns; website themes; templates.

SpiralFrog was a very early music streaming service based in New York City that launched in the United States and Canada on September 17, 2007. SpiralFrog offered free and legal music downloads, all supported by advertising, and was the largest site of its kind in North America. On March 19, 2009, SpiralFrog terminated operations due to loan recalls. While SpiralFrog was not successful in the end, it nonetheless helped shaped the digital music industry shift from the purchase to streaming models, and its ultimate revenue recovery

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Origin (service)</span> Content delivery software by Electronic Arts

Origin is a digital distribution platform developed by Electronic Arts for purchasing and playing video games. In October 2022, Origin ceased operations for its Windows platform, directing players to EA Play. The Mac and mobile versions remain online.

Streaming data is data that is continuously generated by different sources. Such data should be processed incrementally using stream processing techniques without having access to all of the data. In addition, it should be considered that concept drift may happen in the data which means that the properties of the stream may change over time.

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Downloadable content (DLC) is additional content created for an already released video game, distributed through the Internet by the game's publisher. It can either be added for no extra cost or it can be a form of video game monetization, enabling the publisher to gain additional revenue from a title after it has been purchased, often using some type of microtransaction system.

OverDrive, Inc. is a digital distributor of eBooks, audiobooks, online magazines and streaming video titles. The company provides digital rights management and download fulfillment services for publishers, libraries, schools, corporations and book retailers.

Digital rights management (DRM) is the management of legal access to digital content. Various tools or technological protection measures (TPM) such as access control technologies can restrict the use of proprietary hardware and copyrighted works. DRM technologies govern the use, modification, and distribution of copyrighted works, as well as systems that enforce these policies within devices.

GamersGate AB is a Sweden-based online video game store offering electronic strategy guides and games for Windows, macOS, and Linux via direct download. It is a competitor to online video game services such as Steam,, and Direct2Drive.

<span class="mw-page-title-main"></span> Digital video game distribution platform is a digital distribution platform for video games and films. It is operated by GOG sp. z o.o., a wholly owned subsidiary of CD Projekt based in Warsaw, Poland. delivers DRM-free video games through its digital platform for Microsoft Windows, macOS and Linux.

A digital locker or cyberlocker is an online file or digital media storage service. Files stored include music, videos, movies, games and other media. The term was used by Microsoft as a part of its Windows Marketplace in 2004. By storing files in a digital locker, users are able to access them anywhere they can find internet connections. Most digital locker services require a user to register. Prices range from free to paid, divided according to the complications and strength of the lock.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">RealNetworks</span> American technology company

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<i>The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings</i> 2011 video game

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Music piracy is the copying and distributing of recordings of a piece of music for which the rights owners did not give consent. In the contemporary legal environment, it is a form of copyright infringement, which may be either a civil wrong or a crime depending on jurisdiction. The late 20th and early 21st centuries saw much controversy over the ethics of redistributing media content, how much production and distribution companies in the media were losing, and the very scope of what ought to be considered piracy – and cases involving the piracy of music were among the most frequently discussed in the debate.

In the video game industry, digital distribution is the process of delivering video game content as digital information, without the exchange or purchase of new physical media such as ROM cartridges, magnetic storage, optical discs and flash memory cards. This process has existed since the early 1980s, but it was only with network advancements in bandwidth capabilities in the early 2000s that digital distribution became more prominent as a method of selling games. Currently, the process is dominated by online distribution over broadband Internet.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Desura</span> Digital distribution platform

Desura was a digital distribution platform for the Microsoft Windows, Linux and OS X platforms. The service distributed games and related media online, with a primary focus on small independent game developers rather than larger companies. Desura contained automated game updates, community features, and developer resources. The client allowed users to create and distribute game mods as well.


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