Column: Is it illegal to share Netflix passwords?

Q: Is it true that sharing my Netflix password is now against the law?

A recent decision issued by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is just the latest story to take on a life of its own because of the incessant need to create “click-bait” across the internet these days.

Headlines claiming that “sharing your Netflix password is now a federal crime” seem to be lingering, thanks to social media.

The court ruled that sharing your passwords can be grounds for prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, but the case was specifically ruling on unauthorized access to a protected system by a former employee after the company had revoked his access.

The former employee left the company to start a competing business and got a current employee to share her password so he could continue to access company records.

The majority opinion said that the case was about stealing intellectual property, not about password sharing, but a dissenting judge disagreed.

This is apparently where the rumor mill started, and evolved into the salacious headlines that you may have seen shared on Facebook or Twitter.

No part of this ruling directly addressed password sharing of personal streaming services, although one of the judges tried to address the unintended consequences of the ruling because it was so broad.

This ruling signals that it is now easier for businesses to go after current and former employees who share access credentials to protected systems.

Most companies like Netflix, Hulu Plus and HBO have viewed password sharing as a viral marketing tool and probably would not “go after users” even if the ruling gets interpreted this way.

What can get you in trouble is selling your credentials to others, but simply sharing your credentials with a friend or family member isn’t suddenly a federal crime.

Netflix provided with this response to their inquiry into password sharing: “Netflix members can create up to five profiles on each account and the only limit is on how many devices that can be used to access Netflix at the same time, which is by plans. The $11.99 plan allows four devices to stream at the same time; the $9.99 plan allows two. As long as they aren’t selling them, members can use their passwords however they please.”

Other services like Amazon have guidelines for sharing Prime Benefits by creating an Amazon Household posted here.

Cord-cutting millennials who longer live at home use their parent’s password so they can watch popular shows like “Game of Thrones,” and HBO is well aware of that.

“It’s not that we’re unmindful of it, it just has no impact on the business,” HBO’s CEO Richard Plepler told BuzzFeed last year.

He said that in many ways, it’s a “terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers,” and noted that it could potentially lead to more subscribers in the future.

You can expect things to change as streaming services grow in popularity, but for now, there’s no need to worry about federal officials knocking down your door because you shared your Netflix password.

Ken Colburn is founder and CEO of Data Doctors Computer Services. Ask any tech question on his Facebook page or on Twitter.

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