HBO Or Netflix Password Sharing Might Be A Federal Crime

If you've ever logged into your parents' HBO Go account, or let your girlfriend use your Netflix login, then you, my friend, may have committed a federal crime. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has ruled that it is illegal to use someone else's password to access a service without the OK of the system's owner (that'd be the company who provides the service, not the person paying for the subscription). Meaning, yes, we are all lawbreakers now. 

The ruling came about in a case about a headhunting firm database, not HBO or Netflix (or any other streaming service) specifically. The court has deemed password sharing illegal under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act passed in 1986. However, Judge Stephen Reinhardt pointed out in his dissent that the decision could be a slippery slope that applies to all "consensual password sharing" and makes "unwitting federal criminals" out of people engaging in normal, everyday activity.

Like, you know, letting friends use their Netflix or HBO accounts. Or any of the other very normal situations that Reinhardt rattled off as examples:

Take the case of an office worker asking a friend to log onto his email in order to print a boarding pass, in violation of the system owner's access policy; or the case of one spouse asking the other to log into a bank website to pay a bill, in violation of the bank's password sharing prohibition. There are other examples that readily come to mind, such as logging onto a computer on behalf of a colleague who is out of the office, in violation of a corporate computer access policy, to send him a document he needs right away.

But before you freak out, the odds of anyone actually getting thrown in jail for sharing a Netflix account with their roommate are very slim. For starters, the company itself doesn't really seem to care. "We love people sharing Netflix whether they're two people on a couch or 10 people on a couch," said CEO Reed Hastings earlier this year. "That's a positive thing, not a negative thing." Hastings pointed out that people who get hooked on Netflix using other people's passwords may go on to open accounts of their own.

HBO is less enthusiastic about password sharing, but CEO Richard Plepler has said that it's simply not a big concern for them. "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 as long as it remains de minimis."

Even if these services do decide to crack down, it's likely they'll turn to technological solutions (like limiting concurrent streams, as Plepler mentions) rather than legal ones. There just isn't much to be gained for these companies by hunting down loyal subscribers for failing to create four separate accounts for every member of a household, and it'll be a PR nightmare if they actually start suing their own customers for a very common practice.

So go forth and binge Bojack Horseman on your sister's Netflix account with abandon. (If you start now, you'll totally have time to catch up before season 3 hits later this month.) And when you do, embrace the little thrill that comes with the realization that it technically makes you an outlaw.