Digital distribution

Delivery method of media content

Digital content
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  • Software
  • Streaming media
Retail goods and services
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  • Auctions
  • Banking
  • DVD-by-mail
  • Distribution
  • Food ordering
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  • Marketplace
  • Pharmacy
  • Ride-hailing
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Online shopping
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  • Social commerce
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Mobile commerce
Customer service
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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] Downloading peaked in the US in 2012, after which it started falling due to the rise of music streaming services. In 2017, physical formats overtook downloading again for the first time in six years,[11] but despite the vinyl revival and CDs holding its own, the physical formats account for only 11% revenue as of 2023, while streaming services are dominant with 84% of the US industry.[12]


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.[13]

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.[citation needed] 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.[14] 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%[citation needed]. Independent Publishers Group experienced a sales boost of 23% in the first quarter of 2012 alone.[15]

Tor Books, a major publisher of science fiction and fantasy books, started to sell e-books DRM-free by July 2012.[16] One year later the publisher stated that they will keep this model as removing DRM was not hurting their digital distribution ebook business.[17] Smaller e-book publishers such as O'Reilly Media, Carina Press[18] 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.[20][21] The new possibility of the digital distribution stimulated also the creation of game titles of very small video game producers like Independent game developer[22][23] and Modders (e.g. Garry's Mod[24]), 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 do not allow reselling of bought games, Green Man Gaming allows this. Another example is which has a strict non-DRM policy[25] 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.[citation needed] The protective cases for an optical disc is made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a known carcinogen.[26]


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,[27] 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.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "Digital Distribution Law & Legal Definition". Legal Definitions. USLegal. Archived from the original on 30 August 2017. Retrieved 25 April 2012.
  2. ^ Helft, Miguel (16 January 2007). "Netflix to Deliver Movies to the PC". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Archived from the original on 5 February 2021. Retrieved 1 June 2019.
  3. ^ "What Is a CDN? How Does a CDN work?". Cloudflare. Archived from the original on 3 June 2019. Retrieved 1 June 2019.
  4. ^ Kern, Philippe. "The Impact of Digital Distribution – A Contribution" (PDF). Think Tank. Archived from the original (PDF) on 17 April 2012. Retrieved 26 April 2012.
  5. ^ Goldman, David (3 February 2010). "Music's lost decade: Sales cut in half". CNN. Archived from the original on 27 June 2020. Retrieved 3 August 2020.
  6. ^ Canadian Press (29 May 2007). "Sam the Record Man to shut its Yonge St. doors". Entertainment section. The Toronto Star. Archived from the original on 5 September 2008. Retrieved 18 January 2009.
  7. ^ a b c d Janssens, Jelle; Stijn Vandaele; Tom Vander Beken (2009). "The Music Industry on (the) Line? Surviving Music Piracy in a Digital Era" (PDF). European Journal of Crime, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice. 77 (96): 77–96. doi:10.1163/157181709X429105. hdl:1854/LU-608677. Archived (PDF) from the original on 29 July 2020. Retrieved 25 September 2019.
  8. ^ "How Does MP3 Compression Work?". LedgerNote. 21 July 2016. Archived from the original on 21 May 2022. Retrieved 20 June 2022.
  9. ^ Pendlebury, Ty. "What is FLAC? The high-def MP3 explained". CNET. Archived from the original on 20 June 2022. Retrieved 20 June 2022.
  10. ^ "Facts & Stats — IFPI — Representing the recording industry worldwide". Archived from the original on 21 June 2020. Retrieved 16 October 2019.
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ "9.4 Influence of New Technologies". Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication. 22 March 2016. Archived from the original on 17 May 2022. Retrieved 20 June 2022 – via University of Minnesota.
  14. ^ MacInnes, Ian (2005). "Impediments to Digital Distribution for Software and Books". International Journal on Media Management. 7 (1–2): 75–85. doi:10.1080/14241277.2005.9669418. S2CID 54694065.
  15. ^ Rosen, Judith (16 April 2012). "Distribution in a Digital Age". Publishers Weekly. ProQuest 1002661729. Archived from the original on 24 December 2021. Retrieved 24 December 2021.
  16. ^ "Tor/Forge E-book Titles to Go DRM-Free". 24 April 2012. Archived from the original on 9 March 2018. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  17. ^ Geuss, Megan (4 May 2013). "Tor Books says cutting DRM out of its e-books hasn't hurt the business – A look at the sci-fi publisher a year after it announced it would do away with DRM". Arstechnica. Archived from the original on 21 March 2018. Retrieved 7 July 2013. Early this week, Tor Books, a subsidiary of Tom Doherty Associates and the world's leading publisher of science fiction, gave an update on how its decision to do away with Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes has impacted the company. Long story short: it hasn't, really.
  18. ^ "Tor/Forge Plans DRM-Free e-Books By July". Publishers Weekly. 24 April 2012. Archived from the original on 25 April 2012. Retrieved 24 April 2012.
  19. ^ Walker, John (22 November 2007). "RPS Exclusive: Gabe Newell Interview". Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Archived from the original on 12 May 2014. Retrieved 28 June 2013. 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. It's great because they're a bunch of old, orphaned games.
  20. ^ "The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition Tech Info". GameSpot. Archived from the original on 16 January 2010. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  21. ^ Onyett, Charles (2 June 2009). "E3 2009: The Secret of Monkey Island: Special Edition Preview". IGN. Archived from the original on 27 May 2012. Retrieved 15 November 2011.
  22. ^ Garr, Brian (17 April 2011). "Download distribution opening new doors for independent game developers". Archived from the original on 21 April 2011.
  23. ^ Stuart, Keith (27 January 2010). "Back to the bedroom: how indie gaming is reviving the Britsoft spirit". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 5 April 2019. Retrieved 8 November 2012.
  24. ^ Senior, Tom (16 March 2012). "Garry's Mod has sold 1.4 million copies, Garry releases sales history to prove it". PCGamer. Archived from the original on 28 April 2021. Retrieved 28 June 2013.
  25. ^ Caron, Frank (9 September 2008). "First look: GOG revives classic PC games for download age". Ars Technica. Archived from the original on 20 December 2021. Retrieved 27 December 2012. [...] [Good Old Games] focuses on bringing old, time-tested games into the downloadable era with low prices and no DRM.
  26. ^ "Why digital is greener than the boxed video games?". 22 April 2016. Archived from the original on 21 August 2016. Retrieved 4 August 2016.
  27. ^ Kharif, Olga (4 September 2018). "YouTube, Netflix Videos Found to Be Slowed by Wireless Carriers". Bloomberg. Archived from the original on 11 September 2018. Retrieved 27 June 2019.
  28. ^ Furr, Nathan; Shipilov, Andrew (July 2019). "Digital Doesn't Have to Be Disruptive". Harvard Business Review. Archived from the original on 16 August 2019. Retrieved 16 August 2019.
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Music digital distribution platforms
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Software digital distribution platforms
devices &
Smart TVs
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Online video and sharing platforms
Rental and
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Compensation models
Delivery methods
Deceptive and/or illicit
Software release life cycle
Copy protection