Like millions of people across the globe, I save money by logging in to Netflix with a username and password shared with me by friends or family. Recent polling of Netflix users showed that 12% of their total viewers are not paying for the service, and it could be costing the company over $500 million per year in revenue.
Ethically, this presents a tricky issue. I used to work in the entertainment industry, and I want all my old friends and coworkers to stay employed. If no one pays for content, people are going to stop making it. At the same time, artists are usually paid based on how many streams and downloads their content receives. Whether I’m logged in legally to Spotify or not, if I listen to The National’s latest album on repeat for five straight hours, the band will get some money they otherwise wouldn’t have received.
Another problem is that the practice of sharing logins is technically illegal. Thankfully, the law is vague, confusing, and very unlikely to be enforced. Each company has a different way of dealing with the issue, with most of them choosing to turn a blind eye to login sharing or, at worst, limiting concurrent streams as a de facto enforcement.
At first, it’s confusing why companies like Netflix would be okay with losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in subscription money. But we have to keep in mind that these executives aren’t dumb. Most of them are playing the long game when it comes to getting us to part with our money.
If new people are watching Netflix, they have a chance of becoming new fans and subscribers, who will bring more people into the network down the road. Also, more users equals more people who are exposed to advertising, which is still the engine that keeps much of the entertainment and media industries afloat. If I click on an ad and buy a product while using my friend’s New York Times subscription, that’s still a good thing for the Times and the advertiser.
To try to get to the bottom of what’s allowed and what isn’t, I decided to analyze nine of the most popular media subscription services. I tried to find out everything I could about both their official policy and their unofficial stance on sharing login information. That way, we can all be informed about their current policies.
If you want to have multiple people use one Netflix login, you should buy their premium plan, which allows you to watch from four devices at the same time.
Unofficial policy: Share away! Netflix CEO Reed Hastings is notorious for caring very little about the sharing of login information. As long as you aren’t selling your password, you can probably share without fear of retribution. Some people think the company might start cracking down when the sharing of passwords starts affecting their bottom line, but no one is sure when or if that day will come.
HBO Go / HBO Now
Official policy: You can share login information with three people in your household, but sharing with outsiders is frowned upon. They make this clear on their help page, stating, “Your sign-in credentials shouldn’t be shared with anyone outside your household. For security reasons, the number of simultaneous streams is limited. If there are too many streams happening at once from your account, you’ll get a simultaneous streams message.”
Unofficial policy: Andy Samberg famously gave out a working HBO password while hosting the Emmys, and HBO loved the publicity. They were one of the first major subscription providers to come out and say that they don’t mind when their customers share login information. Their CEO went so far as to say they’re in the business of “making addicts,” so the more viewers they get, the better.
Similar to Netflix, the sense around the internet is that if sharing starts to impact their revenue too much, they might initiate a crackdown.
It seems like you can share, but if anyone does anything nefarious on your account, it’s on you.
Unofficial policy: Go ahead and share. The internet is filled with stories of people who share Hulu accounts without issue. I’ve used shared Hulu accounts and I know many others who’ve done so as well. Cracking down does not seem to be a priority for the company.
New York Times Digital
Official policy: You can share with one or two people in your household, but not beyond that. They use some harsh language to get their point across in their terms of service, stating, “You are responsible for all usage or activity on your NYTimes.com account, including use of the account by any third party authorized by you to use your login credentials. Any fraudulent, abusive, or otherwise illegal activity may be grounds for termination of your account, at our sole discretion, and we may refer you to appropriate law enforcement agencies.”
Unofficial policy: It seems fine to share. I scoured the web and found no instances of the NYT team punishing anyone, and I know several people who share their passwords without repercussions.
Furthermore, if you open a private browsing window, you can usually read their content freely without having to worry about going over the 10-article-per-month limit.
Washington Post Digital
Official policy: This one is confusing. Their terms of service states, “Each login is for a single user only. You are not allowed to share or disclose your login credentials with any other user or person. We may cancel or suspend your access to the Services if you share your credentials.”
That’s certainly a straightforward no. However, each subscription comes with a bonus subscription, which can be shared with one other person. I’m not sure why they don’t just let people share their main subscription, as it would appear to accomplish the same thing. But hey, I guess that’s why they pay Jeff Bezos the big bucks.
That all being said, the Post allows free access to many students, teachers, members of the military, and government officials.
Unofficial policy: They are not actively pursuing those that share login credentials. The Post’s tech guru Geoffrey Fowler even wrote an article titled, “You don’t have to feel guilty about sharing your TV log-in,” so it would be pretty hypocritical of them to crack down. Also, as with the New York Times, using a private browsing window will usually allow you to read their content.
Wall Street Journal Digital
Official policy: I think the the WSJ takes the cake for most confusing policy. Here it is, from their subscriber agreement: “Only one individual may access a Service at the same time using the same user name or password, unless we agree otherwise.” (Emphasis is mine.)
Wait, what? Unless they agree otherwise? That seems so… casual. I was not able to find any concrete information about how you get their agreement. If you want to share your account, it wouldn’t hurt to write a nice letter to their support staff or to tweet at their social media manager.
Unofficial policy: If you have a shared password, you should be able to use it without issue. That is, unless you share it with 1,051 people, in which case you will get caught.
Official policy: You’re not technically allowed to share outside of your household. That being said, the Amazon Household plan allows for sharing with up to 10 people, which is by far the biggest group sharing officially offered among these subscription sites.
Unofficial policy: You can share, but they’ve made it very inconvenient to do so. In the past, you could share your benefits with another person as long as you knew their email address and birthday. Then, they could each use their own Prime account. As of 2015, they changed it so that each person you share with will have access to your buying history and credit card information. That makes it a lot less appealing.
So, if you’re going to share, it better be with someone you really trust!
Official policy: Their terms of service state both that “you may use the Services and Content only for personal, noncommercial purposes” and “you can use Content from up to five different Apple IDs on each device.”
So, no sharing with those outside the Apple ecosystem, but you can share your account with up to five others if you buy a family plan.
Unofficial policy: I wasn’t able to find anything concrete about whether they pursue those who share their logins, so my default assumption is that they don’t. That being said, they make it pretty much useless to share your account with multiple people, because you can only stream from one device per logged in user at any given time.
Official policy: Not allowed without a premium plan. Their terms and conditions state that you are forbidden from “providing your password to any other person or using any other person’s username and password.” If you want to legally share with up to five people, however, you can purchase their premium plan.
Unofficial policy: As with Amazon Prime, sharing is possible, but logistically it doesn’t make much sense. As I’ve learned the hard way, Spotify’s technology is very good at booting you if someone else with the shared password starts streaming from their phone. There is no wiggle room.
Sharing subscription passwords is potentially unethical and, in most cases, technically a crime. But it’s highly unlikely you’ll face any repercussions if you do so, and you’re hardly alone: A 2014 poll by Consumer Reports found that 46% of streaming users shared an account with someone outside their household.
It all comes down to what you value and, frankly, how much money you’re willing to spend on subscriptions. While I take advantage of free music streaming sites and the surprising array of digital content on offer at the library, I hope to get to a point where I pay a fair price for all the other stuff I use, too. But in the meantime I’ll just be thankful to have generous friends.