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