The 67th Primetime Emmy Awards had social media abuzz with talk of Viola Davis’s historic win and moving acceptance speech, HBO’s clear and undeniable dominance of the top categories, and Jon Hamm’s long overdue gold statuette for his role in the critically acclaimed drama Mad Men. It can be argued however that no single moment ignited the Twittersphere more than when Emmy host Andy Samberg shared his HBO Now login and password with millions of viewers.   Earlier this year, HBO CEO Richard Pleper stated that he didn’t care if people shared their HBO Go account passwords, calling the practice a “terrific marketing vehicle.” Samberg decided to put the streaming service’s password sharing policies to the test, and surprisingly, the login and password initially worked.

While Pleper and Samberg may not mind you sharing your login and password for HBO’s streaming service with your family or 11.9 million of your closest friends,  it raises the question of when subscription password sharing crosses the line from harmless distribution of binge-watching wealth to an illegal, punishable offense. Since the simplest way to legally crack down on this behavior would be breach of contract, the first place to look in resolving this legal quandary would be each streaming service’s Terms of Use. For instance, although Netflix doesn’t expressly prohibit sharing login credentials with those outside of your household, its Terms of Use does state that the “Account Owner,” or individual “who created the Netflix account and whose Payment Method is charged” is responsible for maintaining sole control of the account, and therefore “should not reveal the password to anyone.” On the other hand, HBO Go explicitly limits use to members of your immediate household.

Given that the respective terms of use are vague at best, the next place to look to discern the legality of this common practice would be how many people can effectively use the service at a time. The number of concurrent streams permissible on Netflix depends on your plan; however, the number of concurrent streams allowed on HBO Go, Amazon Prime, and Hulu Plus are two, three, and one respectively.  In a hazy legal area in which terms of service are inconclusive and executives appear unfazed, the number of concurrent streams allowed would likely be the single most decisive factor in determining each company’s limit on the level of password sharing it finds permissible.

If these streaming services decide that the estimated $500 million each lost in 2015 due to illicit password sharing isn’t exactly chump change,  they may begin revising their terms of use and further limiting the number of concurrent content streams available, allowing them to more effectively pursue violators under breach of contract. Contract law however does not provide the only legal avenue for streaming content providers; these companies can also pursue a cause of action under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), a federal law which criminalizes gaining access to unauthorized electronic information. Furthermore, in some states, namely Tennessee, password sharing for subscription-based streaming services can land you with a misdemeanor punishable by a $2,500 fine and/or a year in jail.

While these streaming services likely won’t sue or file charges against you for attempting to stream too many devices at once, they very well might begin threatening to terminate the accounts of people who abuse this practice. The bottom line is there’s no legal guarantee that any of these companies won’t sue you for sharing your login credentials. If you’d rather avoid arbitration slash have no desire for your life turn into the third season of Orange is the New Black, you should probably avoid sharing your passwords with everyone you know. Alternatively, if you’re a bit more risk tolerant, and follow the House Cards Frank Underwood mantra that “Of all the things [you] hold in high regard, rules are not one of them,” stream on but do so at your own risk.

— Alneada Biggers

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