If you regularly share your Netflix or HBO GO password with friends, at least one court thinks it might be a bad idea.
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Earlier this month, a federal appeals court ruled that sharing a password with another is a federal crime under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The ruling, notes MacRumors, could mean that sharing a Netflix password with a friend to watch House of Cards for instance, is illegal.
However, there's more to this story than meets the eye. For one, companies like HBO, which reportedly has no cap on concurrent streams per account via HBO GO, have declined to crack down on password sharing among their users. A number of streaming services also allow for 2-4 concurrent streams, so you could conceivably share that second sign-in with a friend or family member.
Even Judge McKeown, who wrote the opinion for the judges, said the ruling should not be taken out of context. In the vast majority of cases, he wrote, a person sharing a password with someone else just to watch a show "bears little resemblance" to what ultimately made the court rule that password-sharing is a federal offense. He went on to say that other judges should use "facts and context" to determine whether a person sharing a password with another really violates federal law.
The case in question centers on whether employees can share their credentials in the workforce in violation of their employer's computer-use policy. It has nothing to do with sharing passwords to services with friends to watch programming.
Still, there has long been some debate over sharing credentials with others. Some argue that sharing a password hurts copyright holders, since password recipients can watch content without paying for services. Those payments, critics say, ultimately filter to the creators who should be paid for their content.
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However, others say the practice is harmless and could help services increase the number of users who sign on to their service. If the practice were truly hurting HBO's bottom line, for example, your friend's roommate's cousin's login would've expired long ago and you'd be ponying up for HBO Now.
The case perhaps demonstrates the need to update or streamline the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, something the ACLU recently sued to accomplish.