The fact that some users choose to share their login information for various streaming services, such as Netflix or HBO Go, with friends or family has been well-known for years, to the point where top executives for both companies have publicly fielded questions about the practice. While not explicitly encouraged — sharing logins is actually against most services terms and conditions — using another person’s username and password has never really been actively discouraged by streaming providers either, with Netflix even allowing account owners to create five distinct profiles for different users of the same login. However, thanks to a recent court ruling, leeching off a friend or family member’s streaming password just became something surprising: a federal crime.
That’s right, when you want to borrow someone’s account — be they friend or family member — to check in the latest goings-on in Game of Thrones, Orange is the New Black, or House of Cards, you are technically committing a crime.
Handed down on July 5th by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, the ruling states that sharing passwords without the authorization of the system’s owner is a crime punishable under the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. When it comes to streaming password sharing, the system owner in question would be the content provider itself, such as Netflix or HBO. A dissenting judge outright argued that the ruling would effectively make millions of Americans criminals for sharing their streaming logins, but that failed to sway the majority opinion.
Of course, just because the ruling now exists, that doesn’t mean that executives like Netflix’s Reed Hastings are going to instantly start turning the personal info of account sharers over to the feds for possible prosecution. While they could technically do that, there — at least as things currently stand — would be little incentive to do so. For one, it would be a public relations nightmare for whatever company pursued the action, and would likely lead to many subscribers dropping their service in protest. Secondly, streaming execs have argued in the past that many account sharers eventually move on to become paying customers, with leeching time serving as sort of an unorthodox “free trial” of the service.
That said, a study published in 2015 argued that SVOD companies like Netflix and HBO stood to lose upwards of $500 million worldwide as a result of account sharing, a gigantic sum by any conventional measurement. While other sources eventually disputed that number, it’s still worth wondering just when streaming providers might look at all that potential lost revenue and think “it’s time to start cracking down on this stuff.” If that ever happens, here’s hoping disputes are solved at the user level, and the courts stay out of it.