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A hard copy is a type of material suitable for direct use, meaning that the user can read the material directly, rather than having to process it through a computer or some other technology. The most classic example is printed material on paper. Many industries that work heavily with electronics use the term, along with others, to distinguish what type of media is being discussed. It is sometimes also called a permanent reproduction, since it does not change once it has been generated.
There are some advantages to a hard copy. For reproductions, hard copies are often preferable to electronic versions. It can also be read by anyone at any time, as it requires no assistance from external devices. Important and official documents are usually preserved in this form to create a tangible record of the material. In addition, a hard copy is not subject to the failure of an electronic system, and while it can be physically lost or damaged, it cannot be corrupted or lost in the same way that a computer document can. For this reason, many people generate electronic and printed versions of important material such as literary manuscripts.
There are, of course, also disadvantages to the hard copy medium. It requires much more space to store, since room must be made somewhere for documents in this format. It also requires staff time to store, retrieve, and process. For small companies, devoting staff time to handling such material is not always practical. Conversion of paper to electronic filing systems, for example, frees up a lot of space and time in a small office, allowing the company to focus on developing new products.
In addition, a hard copy is not as portable as electronic media. To be transported from one place to another, it needs to by physically carried, which takes time. Electronic documents, on the other hand, can be transmitted through electronic systems virtually instantaneously. Using a hard copy does ensure, however, that it can be read by the recipient, as issues of platform compatibility or file corruption are moot. It also lends a certain importance to the material covered, as most people associate physical paper with sensitive or official materials.
There is also the potential for a hard copy to last much longer than an electronic archive. If it is produced on archival quality paper and handled and stored properly, it will be readable a century later, and often much further into the future. Electronic data, however, can become unstable over less time. It is also possible to lose access to the equipment needed to read the data, as advances in technology render it obsolete.
@CrispyFries - If you're suggesting that making documents and other things fully digitized without hard copies, your concern is understandable but there are things to consider. First of all, most important things are backed up on so many different servers and hard drives that a complete loss of an item due to a crash isn't really realistic. Even some kind of massive crash could eliminate the internet's infrastructure. It just exists in too many places to fall prey to a server crash.
In addition, there are things you could have done to prevent losing that essay. A portable hard drive is a must for anybody that writes on the computer or does anything creative using a computer. If you back it up on a hard drive as you go, you will never have this problem.
I'm somewhat fearful that the hardcopy will become increasingly obscure as we move further into the digital age. While hard copies of documents aren't indestructible, they are easy to protect and preserve. Digital copies of things on the other hand, are subject to the unpredictable nature of computers.
I can say from experience that this can be infuriating on a nearly indescribable level. When I was in college, I was working on a paper that was to be ten pages long. I was nearly seven pages through the essay when Microsoft Word decided to crash, costing me the many hours of work I'd already put in.
While I probably could have done things to help prevent this, it was still indicative of the potential problems that come with pervasive digitization.