Dusty shelves packed with DVDs, Blu-rays, or HD-DVDs (remember those?) can seem something of an anachronism in our streaming, always-online world. But, having a physical copy of your favourite movies might not be a bad idea, especially in light of a recent Apple customer’s experience where films he’d bought on iTunes were unavailable after he moved from Australia to Canada.

So, should you buy digital copies of movies, or are there other ways to build a collection you can watch on your devices? We take a look at this surprisingly complex issue.

Digital movies are not necessarily yours

When you click that Buy button on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, or somewhere, be aware that a more accurate word might be lease.

That was the impression given to Canadian Anders G da Silva when he found that he could not access three previously purchased movies from his iTunes library.

After contacting the company to find out what had happened, he was told by an Apple representative that,

…the content provider has removed these movies from the Canadian Store. Hence, these movies are not available in Canada iTunes Store at this time.

He was offered two free rentals, but this felt like scant reimbursement for products that he had bought to keep. After complaining about this situation, da Silva received a more detailed explanation of how this strange plundering of his library could happen.

Please be informed that the iTunes/App Store is a store front that gives content provider a platform or a place to sell their items. We can only offer what has been made available to us via the studios or distributor. Since the content provider has removed these movies from the Canadian Store, I am unable to provide you the copy of the movies.

Also know that our ability to issue the refund diminishes over time. Hence your purchases doesn’t meet the condition for a refund.

Aside from the questionable grammar, these statements revealed a darker truth about buying digital content: it never really becomes your property.

There is an important caveat here, if you’ve downloaded a copy of the movie, then your local version should remain unmolested. But, if you prefer to keep storage to a minimum or use a device like the Apple TV to stream content, then you could be in for a nasty surprise the next time you sit down to peruse your film collection.

how to buy movies online

Of course, this is by no means a problem only with iTunes and Apple. It’s a similar story with Amazon, Google, and others, all of whom write into their Terms & Conditions something similar to Apple’s explanation.

The problem is these companies don’t own the content themselves and really offer only access to it. Thus, when that access is revoked due to a licensing issue, your ‘purchases’ are suddenly void, at least until the licence returns to the platform.

Now, bear in mind that these removals of content are rare, so it’s not like Amazon, Apple and Google will be deleting your content willy-nilly. But, it’s important that you know this is a possibility when you make your purchase.

The golden rule is simply to download everything you buy, as it might not be there tomorrow.

There are still no guarantees even if you do download, because the movies may be locked away inside your media streamer and / or encrypted so you can't simply take the file and copy it to another device to watch it.

What are the advantages of buying digital movies?

Blu-ray cases can look cool on a shelf, but if you want to build a sizeable collection then storing them will quickly become an issue.

Then there’s the fact that you need a DVD or Blu-ray player to watch the movie, which is nigh on impossible with modern laptops, not to mention tablets and smartphones. 

Even with digital versions, though, it’s not all plain sailing. If you buy movies from iTunes then you won’t be able to play them back on an Android tablet, PlayStation, Xbox One, Roku box, or pretty much anything other than an Apple device or a PC.

Google Play Store purchases can be viewed via the YouTube app, which means it probably has the widest range of compatible devices, while Amazon has worked hard to make it’s Prime Video app available on most of the major platforms.

how to buy movies online AMAZON

One thing to note, if you’re thinking of buying an Amazon Fire TV 4K then you won’t be able to watch movies bought in the Google Play Store, unless you install a web browser and visit youtube.com in that.

Also, there’s no Chromecast support for the Amazon Prime Video apps. So, if you want to watch movies purchased from the retailer, you won’t be able to do it from your smartphone or tablet. Instead you’ll need to stream a tab in Chrome on your PC. 

Put simply, then, the real advantage of digital movies is that you can access them instantly: there's no waiting for a disc to arrive in the post. 

What about renting or subscribing to a streaming service

Of course, there is an alternative to buying digital movies: you can rent them from iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, and others.

The average cost for a 48-hour hire is around £2.49/$2.49 for SD and £3.49/$3.49 for HD. Most of the stores run promotions on a regular basis, so keep an eye out for ‘Movies of the week’ and similar offers.

And if that sounds too expensive, and you're not too fussed about waiting a while after the movies have left the cinema, you could subscribe to Netflix or Amazon Video (or another streaming service). You pay a set monthly fee and have unlimited access to watching any movie on the service along with a ton of TV box sets and original content.

Bear in mind that NowTV, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and plenty of other subscription based services offer free trials too, so if you time it right you can get a month or two of movies for free while you decide how you want to proceed.

To see what’s currently available, check out our guide to the best streaming services.

Buying physical media and making a backup

If you still want a physical copy but also want to watch the movie on your phone, tablet, Xbox or something else, then buy a Blu-ray or DVD which contains a code for a digital version. The UltraViolet service has been one of the most prominent in this area, drawing support from the likes of Warner Brothers, Sony, Universal, and Fox.

It’s a good way to ensure that you have access to your collection in the cloud, as well as having a physical copy that can’t be suddenly deleted.

The UltraViolet route isn’t exactly smooth though, as it requires setting up accounts with the various studios when you redeem their movies. It also requires you use a compatible app rather than a dedicated UltraViolet one.

In the UK this is Flixster Video, but those in the US have a wider range of options, with Walmart’s Vudu being a popular choice.

how to buy movies online Flixster

PC and Mac users can download movies directly from the UltraViolet site, and as the company doesn’t actually sell content it should mean that your purchases have little chance of disappearing.

Making your own digital versions

Perhaps the safest, if also the most labour intensive, is to buy a physical copy of the movie, then create a digital backup (a 'rip') that you can use on your devices. You’ll need to check the legality of this method in your region, as it does vary, but so long as you’re not sharing the copy and you retain the original disc, then you should be OK.

There are a number of DVD and Blu-ray ripping software titles available, and you can read our How to rip DVDs to Windows 10 for a step by step guide on how to use them. 

Once you have the digital versions, it’s best to store them on a NAS (Network Attached Storage) device, as those movies will take up a lot of space on your hard drive. Read our Best NAS drive 2018 guide for more details.

To access the films from your various tablets, smartphones, and streaming boxes, you’ll also want to use the excellent Plex software, which works on pretty much anything.

how to buy movies online PLEX

Of course, all of this requires time and money, but if you want to ensure that your purchases remain available for the longest time, then it’s certainly worth considering.