SideReel Spotlight – Is Sharing Passwords Fair or Foul?

By April 11, 2013 SideReel Spotlight No Comments

Note: SideReel Spotlight is an ongoing series of insights and commentary from the SideReel team about the changing landscape of the TV industry. 

Paid streaming TV services are popping up everywhere. Early contenders Netflix and Hulu+ are continually expanding their catalogs in order to battle increased competition from later entrants like Amazon Prime Instant Video and the soon-to-launch Vdio and Spotify VOD offerings. On the other end of the spectrum, there are established content producers adapting their models for the new content ecosystem. HBO and Showtime grant existing subscribers access to their streaming services (HBO GO and SHO Anytime) at no additional cost. Clearly, content providers are aware that consumers want greater flexibility in their viewership habits — the new issue is how these services can ensure that only those users paying for the content are the ones with access to it.


Password-sharing might be the next iteration of the ongoing issues that arise in the evolution of how we consume TV content. The battlefield has shifted from combatting digital piracy (with help from governmental regulation) to the sharing of streaming service accounts. HBO GO, for one, doesn’t restrict multiple simultaneous device logins, hypothetically allowing four different people to watch the same show at the same time on the same subscription.

In its terms for HBO GO, HBO specifies that, “you must be a subscriber with an account in good standing with an authorized distributor of HBO that carries HBO GO”. But it doesn’t seem like this is really enforced or policed beyond this conditional legal communication.

The arguments about this type of loophole center on the ethics of shared accounts. In a blog column for the New York Times, Public Editor Margaret Sullivan comes down firmly on one side of this debate, saying “Does password-sharing with strangers reflect the highest ethics? Clearly not.” Source

The other side of the coin is if it’s even really an ethical issue to begin with or a legal one. Is it legal for someone to use a friend’s login credentials to watch something they didn’t pay for themselves? Is it any different from watching pirated content? One interesting question this brings up is whether the subscription fees are merely for access to the content or for the direct consumption of it.

In the past few years, various governments have cracked down hard on online content piracy, shutting down torrent catalogues and sites like But if I use my cousin’s sister’s friend’s aunt’s Netflix subscription to watch the upcoming Arrested Development premiere, I, too, am watching content that I didn’t pay for. Someone did, but that someone wasn’t me.

Perhaps the issue is that the streaming content providers simply can’t (or won’t) police account-sharing, since cracking down would conflict with the habits of multi-platform users (a desirable demographic). Either way, as we start watching in more and more ways and on more and more devices, gray-area issues like this will continue to come up — and content owners and providers will have to continue to pick their battles carefully to avoid backlash.

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