The seventh season of “Game of Thrones” returns on Sunday, and if you’re like a significant chunk of HBO’s viewership, you can watch it thanks to the login credentials tracing back to your friend’s ex-boyfriend’s parents.
But if you listened to the headlines after a court decision last July, you might fear a SWAT team could bust down your door in the middle of your illicit “Veep” episode. Countless news sites reported that sharing your password would be a “federal crime,” while others suggested you might “go to jail” for it.
The less hysteric truth is more complicated but experts largely agree: You are in very little danger of legal trouble by sharing your password or using a shared one. The laws remain murky, but the government is unlikely to prosecute you, and the streaming video services have shown no desire to go after customers.
(We’re not saying you should use someone else’s password. As an ethical issue, it’s probably a good idea to pay for it. The same goes for news.)
But so far, Netflix, HBO, Amazon, Hulu and other streaming companies have indicated that they’re either quietly accepting of the practice or possibly even cheering it on as a marketing strategy.
Why the government most likely won’t come after you
In 2016, two court decisions led some to conclude that password sharing is illegal, but whether the decisions apply to your Netflix account remains in dispute.
In one case, United States v. Nosal, a three-judge panel ruled in July that a former employee of an executive search firm illegally gained access to the company’s computers by using login credentials that had been willingly supplied by a current employee. Two of the judges found that the former employee had defied a ban on “access without authorization” in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a 1986 anti-hacking law.
In the dissent, Judge Stephen Reinhardt said the decision could be applied to everyday password sharing.
“If we interpret ‘without authorization’ in a way that includes common practices like password sharing, millions of our citizens would become potential federal criminals overnight,” he wrote.
But the majority opinion disputed the sentiment, dismissing fears as hypotheticals while writing that “this appeal is not about password sharing.” Much of the media coverage focused on the dissenting opinion.
In a separate case, Facebook v. Power Ventures, the social media company filed a lawsuit against an aggregator for logging into Facebook via user accounts after the company received a cease-and-desist order. The court decided that Power Ventures could not have access even though users had given the company their login credentials.
Legal experts have said both cases leave a lot of uncertainty.
“A lot of times you get legal clarity when there are cases,” said Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University who represented Power Ventures. “We just don’t have cases because the government doesn’t prosecute password-sharing cases, or hasn’t, and the companies have not brought lawsuits either. So we just don’t know.”
Jamie Williams, a staff lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the organization is among those seeking clarity from the Supreme Court.
“As a technical matter, it is illegal,” Williams said. “Will the federal government prosecute you for it? Probably not.”
Why the companies most likely won’t come after you
Netflix, HBO, Hulu and Amazon declined to comment for this story. But in past statements, the companies have indicated they’re not too worried about the trend.
In an October 2016 earnings call, Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix, said there were no plans to change the company’s practices on sharing.
“Password sharing is something you have to learn to live with, because there’s so much legitimate password sharing, like you sharing with your spouse, with your kids,” he said. “So there’s no bright line, and we’re doing fine as is.”
Richard Plepler, the chief executive of HBO, told CNN in April 2015 that “right now password sharing is just simply not a big number.”
“Should it become a big number, we will deal with it,” he said. “We will change the number of concurrent streams that are available. But right now, the number really isn’t significant.”
A Reuters/Ipsos poll this month found 12 percent of streaming viewers had used someone else’s password to gain access to one of the services. That number rose to 21 percent among people ages 18 to 24.
The effect on the companies’ bottom lines remains unclear, but a study by Parks Associates, a research group, found that sharing cost the streaming video industry $500 million in 2015.
One reason the companies appear hesitant to police the passwords harder: Freeloaders could become the next customers.
“We could crack down on it, but you wouldn’t suddenly turn all those folks to paid users,” Netflix’s chief financial officer David Wells said in September, according to Reuters.
But again, those pesky ethics
Sharing passwords can inspire a similar sense of inner turmoil that people felt in the 2000s, when services like Napster and Kazaa allowed music and movie lovers to download full albums and movies at will, never paying a dime.
That time, the entertainment industry fought back. The Recording Industry Association of America targeted thousands of file-sharers who had illegally downloaded music and movies. (Those lawsuits were focused on copyright infringement, not password sharing, and there’s been no indication the streaming services would follow a similar legal path.)
In both cases, there might be a lingering sense that if you like the content enough to be watching it, you ought to pay a bit of money so the creators can keep creating things like it.