Shar­ing your video log-in isn’t al­ways a no-no

The Washington Post - - ECONOMY & BUSINESS - More at wash­ing­ton­ news/ the-switch GE­OF­FREY A. FOWLER

When the Olympics come around, the ca­ble guy has an aw­ful way of mak­ing us feel like crim­i­nals. It hap­pens like this: You’re telling your buddy about Lind­sey Vonn’s big down­hill run, but he doesn’t have a way to watch. It’s pos­si­ble to stream all this stuff through apps in 2018 — but he needs a pass­word from a pay TV provider.

And then comes the dig­i­tal dilemma. Can you give your lo­gin to your friend? What about your kid in col­lege? The same is­sue re­turns around big Net­flix and HBO re­leases. Is that shar­ing . . . or steal­ing?

Good luck get­ting a straight an­swer from the fine print in your con­tract. So I had some ex­tremely awk­ward con­ver­sa­tions with ca­ble and stream­ing com­pa­nies, lawyers, and in­dus­try in­sid­ers about what is per­mit­ted — and what is eth­i­cal. My con­clu­sion: It’s of­ten okay to share a log-in, so long as it’s lim­ited to some­one in your fam­ily or a close friend.

To be clear, I’m not ad­vo­cat­ing for pass­ing around log-ins willynilly. Shar­ing a pass­word is, first of all, a se­cu­rity risk for hack­ing. Us­ing some­one else’s pass­word, even with their per­mis­sion, can be a le­gal gray area, though no­body has been charged with a crime. There is also less of an ex­cuse to be a free­loader since it has be­come pos­si­ble to buy TV through stream­ing apps such as Sling TV and HBO Now.

But don’t fall for a guilt trip, ei­ther. Many dis­trib­u­tors and chan­nel own­ers I spoke with in­sisted on be­ing vague about their poli­cies, tac­itly ac­knowl­edg­ing that they see some shar­ing as ei­ther as a cost of busi­ness or a form of mar­ket­ing. And the smartest TV com­pa­nies sell pack­ages in ways that make shar­ing a shame-free part of the ser­vice.

What’s per­mit­ted?

Last year, re­search firm Parks As­so­ciates found that 16 per­cent of U.S. house­holds with broad­band ad­mit­ted ei­ther bor­row­ing video log-ins or shar­ing their own cre­den­tials.

A few com­pa­nies say they con­sider this be­hav­ior steal­ing.

“Char­ter be­lieves that pass­word shar­ing is a copy­right in­fringe­ment,” said Nathalie Bur­gos, a spokes­woman for Amer­ica’s sec­ond-largest ca­ble com­pany.

Most, how­ever, would not go that far — and what they don’t say is just as in­struc­tive as what they do.

Al­most all TV com­pa­nies pro­vide si­mul­ta­ne­ous streams to fa­cil­i­tate shar­ing. The stick­ing point is who is al­lowed to par­tic­i­pate. Some tra­di­tional ca­ble com­pa­nies say it’s for a sin­gle house­hold only. What de­fines a house­hold? Most don’t re­ally say.

Adding to the con­fu­sion, app poli­cies are of­ten spe­cific to the net­work, not the pay-TV provider that gives you a log-in.

Could shar­ing be il­le­gal? Courts have ap­plied a 1986 com­puter fraud and abuse law to for­bid shar­ing pass­words to data­bases and so­cial me­dia sites. But there is con­fu­sion over the ra­tio­nale be­hind those rul­ings.

At least for now, com­pa­nies seem fo­cused on ex­treme abuses, such as hun­dreds of si­mul­ta­ne­ous streams from a sin­gle ac­count.

Net­flix chief ex­ec­u­tive Reed Hast­ings, speak­ing in 2016, called pass­word shar­ing “some­thing you have to learn to live with” be­cause there’s so much le­git­i­mate use by fam­i­lies.

The most In­ter­net-savvy of TV com­pa­nies do away with some of this am­bi­gu­ity by let­ting us fig­ure out how we want to dis­trib­ute the streams we pay for.

Net­flix and AT&T’s DirecTV sell pack­ages with mul­ti­ple streams and ap­pear to give us lee­way in us­ing them. A spokes­woman for Dish Net­work and its sis­ter stream­ing ser­vice Sling TV said its fo­cus is on too many si­mul­ta­ne­ous log-ins rather than “who is us­ing an ac­count.”

It’s a great point: In the In­ter­net age, why should TV providers be in the busi­ness of de­cid­ing whom you con­sider close?

Is it steal­ing — or mar­ket­ing?

Good TV is ex­pen­sive: NBC paid $963 mil­lion to broad­cast the 2018 Olympics. Of course, com­pa­nies need to pro­tect the value of their ser­vices by mak­ing them scarce.

But the In­ter­net also has the po­ten­tial to get a gen­er­a­tion that might never buy ca­ble to pay for TV on­line.

As broad­band In­ter­net be­came com­mon, some chan­nels be­gan stream­ing as a ben­e­fit to ca­ble sub­scribers. With a log-in from your pay TV provider, you could use a TV Ev­ery­where app on your phone or a web browser. This fu­eled shar­ing be­cause for years us­ing a TV Ev­ery­where log-in was the only easy way to watch on­line.

But since the 2014 Win­ter Olympics, TV has come a long way in catch­ing up with the In­ter­net. Some of the most pop­u­lar net­works, such as HBO and CBS, joined Net­flix in sell­ing stream­ing di­rectly. There is still no way to buy on­line ac­cess to only the Olympics from NBC, but there are now ways to get the equiv­a­lent of a ca­ble TV pack­age through an app. Ca­ble-cut­ting ser­vices of­fer a patch­work of stream­ing chan­nels.

Now that the busi­ness of TV on the In­ter­net is grow­ing, it puts pass­word shar­ing in a dif­fer­ent light.

Brett Sap­ping­ton, a di­rec­tor of re­search at Park As­so­ciates, es­ti­mates that shar­ing cost the TV in­dus­try $3.5 bil­lion in 2017. But he’s not just wag­ging a fin­ger at us. “Ul­ti­mately, the so­lu­tion is to turn it into a mar­ket op­por­tu­nity, rather than a rea­son to en­force strict rules,” Sap­ping­ton told me. “Do you re­ally want to be in a po­si­tion where you are su­ing your own cus­tomers?”

Most peo­ple want to do the right thing, or at least the easy thing. But now TV is scat­tered among so many of­fers — ca­ble providers and stream­ing ser­vices, all with dif­fer­ent con­tent — that it can be hard to tell when it’s worth pay­ing for a ser­vice. Sam­pling off a friend’s ac­count can be the gate­way to fully sub­scrib­ing, or de­cid­ing you’re in­ter­ested only in the Olympics.

HBO, for one, has fo­cused on build­ing a fan base. It gives free stream­ing ac­cess to stu­dents who live on cam­pus at dozens of univer­si­ties.

When house­holds take on free tri­als of stream­ing ser­vices, about half the time they end up sub­scrib­ing to at least one, Sap­ping­ton said. TV providers just have to fig­ure out how to treat folks dip­ping into their ser­vices like po­ten­tial cus­tomers rather than crim­i­nals.

Why should TV providers de­cide whom you con­sider close?

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