Twenty-two-year-old Lauren Newfield, like many other millennials, watches all of her TV shows on one of four streaming services: Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go and Amazon Prime Video. But she only pays for one of them.
Newfield uses her family’s Amazon Prime account, her friend’s HBO account and her ex-boyfriend’s Hulu account, and doesn’t see much of a reason to get her own.
“It’s expensive,” she said. “I don’t want to pay myself if I can just use someone else’s.”
As streaming services grow more expensive, users have tried to find unconventional ways to save, including sharing login information. In fact, 26% of millennials share passwords for streaming services, according to a study done by Magid, a media research firm.
So a ton of people are sharing accounts. But it’s not entirely legal.
Could you go to jail for sharing your account?
The short answer — no.
The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, passed more than 30 years ago, encompasses a wide range of digital crimes. This could include sharing account credentials, like a password or username. But it would be unusual for the government to prosecute someone without the cooperation of the streaming service itself, said David O’Brien, assistant director of research at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society.
“How a streaming service thinks about the boundaries of ‘access’ and ‘permitted uses’ informs what types of behaviors are likely to be deemed criminal by a prosecutor,” he said.
Almost all streaming services allow account sharing (per their terms of service), but only with those in your immediate household. These guidelines are intentionally left vague — does your household include just your family, or your roommates? How about your partner? O’Brien admits it’s difficult to figure out who exactly is included in a household, which makes it harder for a user to actually violate a streaming service’s rules.
If you violate a service’s terms of service, it’s unlikely that you’ll get prosecuted, but it’s not impossible. (But please don’t take this as legal advice. Talk to a lawyer about any specific concerns.) While companies may go after severe violators, O’Brien said it would be a waste of time and money to go after every user who shares their account information.
“Going after individuals generally doesn't scale well in the legal system,” said O’Brien. “If you put all your customers in jail, you might not have many people left to pay for the service!”
Representatives from Hulu, Netflix, HBO and Amazon did not immediately respond to comment.
How to save on streaming services
I talked to a number of young adults who shared streaming accounts with each other. The most common reason was cost.
“It just makes sense to share,” said 23-year-old Matthew Schiff, a talent assistant in Los Angeles. “Why pay hundreds for a bunch of different services you use a couple times a year when you can just borrow someone’s account and get access for free?”
While it’s economical to want to save on streaming services, sharing accounts may not be your best bet. Aside from the legal issues, your access an account that’s not yours might be limited.
Some streaming services have restrictions in place to curb account sharing. Netflix only allows up to four screens be used under one account, under their Premium plan. Hulu’s plan with no commercials only allows streaming on one device at a time. Amazon and HBO allow three devices to stream at the same time.
O’Brien predicts streaming services will further limit the ability to share account information in the future.
Instead, try cutting back on the number of streaming services you use. If all you watch is “The Office,” consider sticking with Netflix and cutting ties with the other services (you would save hundreds a year).
If you are dead-set on having all your subscriptions, go through your bank account and look for charges that you’re still paying for, but stopped using. These “zombie charges” are often the product of signing up for a free trial. You can learn more about the risks of free trials here.
If you are looking for other ways to offset the cost, check out this list of ways to start saving right now.
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