Don’t Forget Your Password – Share It!

We are old enough to remember when television only came into your home through an antenna, and there were only a handful of TV broadcast stations you could even watch. We. Are. So. Old.

Then along came cable TV, with its eventual offering of hundreds of television channels, on-demand video viewing and digital recording capabilities. Now, we are in the midst of the continued emergence and consumer use of streaming video services such as Netflix, Prime Video, Hulu, Disney+, Peacock, Paramount and ESPN+.

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The development and adoption of streaming services has happened in parallel with (or because of) the development and adoption of internet mobile devices. We all want to be able to watch the streaming content from a service we’ve subscribed to on our devices (including smart phones, tablets, televisions and computer monitors) anywhere and anytime. In fact, that convenience has been a significant selling point for streaming services.

As noted above, these streaming services are accessed by means of a subscription. As a subscriber, you then get access (via a password protected portal) to watch the content that is available on that service. For instance, a Disney+ subscriber can watch Marvel’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever whenever they want, wherever they want, on whatever device screen they want (and can jump back and forth from one device to another while doing so). This is super convenient, which is why everyone now uses streaming services. Everyone – even your grandmother.

And, speaking of your grandma (and maybe the rest of your family), it is also quite likely that one family member has a Netflix account and that account has designated user profiles (i.e., other family members, including you) that reside in different physical households. In 2016, as Netflix was still on the upswing, its CEO Reed Hastings said, “We love people sharing Netflix. That’s a positive thing, not a negative thing.” In 2017, Netflix tweeted “Love is sharing a password.”

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That was then; this is now. The competition for consumer eyes and dollars has become much more intense in the streaming services arena. Recently, Netflix suggested that it will soon crack down on password sharing (other than for those residing in the same physical household). Like all streaming services, Netflix knows what you watch, where you watch it and when you watch it, for each account profile, by tracking IP addresses and device IDs. Each streaming service can tell whether you’ve being naughty or nice when it comes to password sharing (and, no doubt, will share that valuable information with Santa). Much has been written about Netflix’s changing attitude toward password sharing – look it up. Other streaming services are paying attention to this, too.

All of this is about our access to creative content. When it comes to intellectual property, such content is primarily protected by copyright. When you open a streaming service account, you agree to the “Terms of Use” for that account, a click-through agreement generally characterized as a copyright license that allows you controlled access to that service’s creative content.

The “Terms of Use” for Netflix limits such access to “your personal and non-commercial use only” that typically “may not be shared with individuals beyond your household.” Netflix now says: “A Netflix account is meant to be shared in one household (people who live in the same location with the account owner). People who are not in your household will need to sign up for their own account to watch Netflix.” Thus, sharing Netflix accounts and passwords with persons who reside in different households (e.g., adult siblings, parents, former spouses, etc.) is technically prohibited under your subscription agreement. Some characterize such disallowed password sharing as piracy in the form of copyright infringement. Remember Napster? Everyone once used that and thought it was OK – until it wasn’t, because of copyright infringement.

Even though it is now Spring 2023, when it comes to streaming services access, we are afraid that “Winter is [likely] coming.”

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