Paper DVD labels: still evil (and three alternatives)

If you've read the book you know about my campaign against paper DVD labels. They are a cheap and easy way to make your burned DVD-Rs look vaguely professional, but they can severely alter video playback to the point of making a screener unwatchable. Google it up if you don't believe me. The most compelling evidence comes from the Memorex Reference Guide for Optical Media:

Paper labels are not recommended for DVD discs. The expansion and contraction of moisture in the paper and the accumulation of heat in a DVD drive can alter the flatness of a disc enough that it falls out of the tilt specification and may not be able to be read.

This advice still hasn't quite made it into the conventional wisdom – I still see plenty of paper labels on screeners – but when prompted, festival directors tell me that most of their bad screener copies are adorned with paper labels. There are, however, some alternatives that will get the job done and preserve the integrity of video playback. They are:


  • Hand labeling with a Sharpie marker. Low-tech and the least professional-looking option, perhaps, but reliable and very inexpensive. So long as you write legibly, don't worry about a hand-labled disc hurting your chances of acceptance; the quality of your film will determine that, not the surface of the DVD on which it arrives.


  • The LightScribe labeling system can create good looking "printed" disc surfaces without ink or a printer. You'll need a LightScribe-enabled DVD burner and DVD discs with LightScribe coating. Here's how it works:

    The laser inside a CD/DVD disc drive with LightScribe technology focuses light energy onto a thin dye coating on the label side of the disc. Only LightScribe media has this special coating. The light from the laser causes a chemical change in the dye coating that shows up on the disc. With laser precision, the drive renders the text and images that you created for the label.

    Although the cost of LightScribe discs has come down quite a bit in recent years, they are still somewhat more expensive than regular DVD-Rs, even the ones with white printable surfaces (see below). Perhaps the biggest drawback to Lightscribe is the amount of time it takes to burn an image on the coated surface; I've seen estimates of a few minutes for a simple text label to up to half an hour for a complex image.


  • Printed DVDs, though more time-consuming and expensive than hand-labeled DVDs, can't be beat for looks. Buying discs with a white printable surface isn't much more expensive than the plain silver-surfaced media and the printers and ink are widely available. The big drawback here is expense; inkjet cartridges are pricey and notoriously fussy. If you've got a good label design and the funds to spend, however, this is definitely the best way to get great looking DVDs.

    A cheaper alternative is a thermal transfer printer like the ones made by Casio; they won't get you four-color printing but they will print on plain silver discs which are inexpensive and get you good-looking results.