When does sharing become stealing?


I have a confession to make: Over the past two years, I have been watching HBO content without paying for it. I’m not actually pirating it. Instead, I have benevolent family members who subscribe to the channel and have gifted me with a password they get from their local cable provider.

Of course, I’m hardly the average consumer: I have been covering cable’s TV Everywhere initiative since its launch, and I got my first taste of the services available as soon as they first started coming available. Nor am I wholly dependent on my family connection for streaming video content: I regularly request access to new TV Everywhere services as they are launched, using test accounts provided by networks and distributors to try out new streaming products and services that might not be available through my family’s service. I also pay for Netflix and Hulu Plus to keep track of what they are doing, and I have frequently bought season passes to certain cable programs — like Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy and Breaking Bad — that weren’t available through TV Everywhere or any of the other services.

But the bulk of my “TV viewing” over the past two years has been streaming HBO or Showtime shows like Boardwalk Empire, Game of Thrones, Dexter, Shameless and, most recently, Luck, either to my laptop or to my iPad. For good measure, I have even gone back and watched series I love like Deadwood and The Wire. The TV Everywhere experience, I am happy to say, is generally a good one, and it is a great value-add for paying cable subscribers.

But remember, I don’t actually pay for cable.

The rules of TV Everywhere, or lack thereof

I write this for a few reasons. TV networks like HBO and operators like Comcast are leading the charge on the TV Everywhere front, hoping to give viewers more of a reason for subscribers to stay by giving them access to more content in more places. But by making that content available on multiple screens and devices, they are also opening up the possibility that paying subscribers like my family members will create or share passwords with loved ones. That allows users like me, who wouldn’t usually have access to that content, to view all of their favorite shows without actually paying for cable.

That’s not what they intended, of course, but it is certainly something that the cable companies are thinking about. When the very first TV Everywhere offering from Comcast came to market, for instance, the company was pretty stringent about the number of user name and password combinations that were available per household as well as the number of devices that could access an account. That hasn’t changed, really, either for Comcast or any other operators that have introduced TV Everywhere–type services.

In fact, if anything, operators have become less open about the terms of service for their TV Everywhere offerings. I surveyed a bunch of them to find out how those services were enabled — i.e., how many user accounts per household were available, how many simultaneous streams were available per account, etc. — and all were pretty cagey about giving details on how those accounts could be used. Most declined to comment entirely, while others agreed to speak only off the record. One cable spokesperson told me that the company didn’t want to give a road map for subscribers who might choose to share passwords.

What is clear is that there is no current set of best practices for TV Everywhere authentication. Those operators who provide multiple accounts generally seem to limit each one to one simultaneous login per stream. Other operators enable users to log in only with the master account, generally to ensure that subscribers won’t want to also share their billing information, usage data and parental controls with others. But they will allow multiple simultaneous streams on that account. Others will have one stream and one account. It is the Wild West out there, possibly for good reason.

The password-sharing phenomenon

So how prevalent are these shared accounts? At this point, probably not very. For now, I am probably the exception rather than the rule — but I’m sure I’m not alone.

Anecdotal evidence tells me that subscribers to video services tend to share within a household or among a group of friends regardless of the price. I have seen friends share usage of a Netflix or Hulu Plus account. More surprisingly, some friends who share tend not to expect payment back in return for shared access.

But that’s just $7.99 per month for a range of older library content. What happens when you are charging upward of $100 for cable access and are offering up content that is only available with a cable subscription? HBO shows, for example, are only available on DVD and Blu-ray long after a season ends, generally about a month or so before a new season begins. And you won’t find them anywhere online unless you have a TV Everywhere account. But if you do, you will be able to watch episodes the next day and increasingly on the device of your choice.

A problem for the college generation?

For now, sharing of TV Everywhere accounts is still limited to those who know what those services are, and the industry as a whole still has a long way to go to educate their customers about the streaming content they have access to. But there is one demographic that seems perfectly situated to take advantage of TV Everywhere logins: college students.

As a whole, college kids are tech-savvy, watch content on multiple platforms, and generally don’t have a lot of disposable income. Moreover, they don’t have a lot of choice when it comes to whatever content is available through their university dorm’s cable offering. So being able to keep tabs on some of their favorite cable programming while away from home can be a value-add, indeed.

One cable network spokesperson who wished to remain anonymous told me it is not necessarily a bad thing for college students to have access while at school. After all, it only drives interest in the programming when they graduate and get their first jobs. But the question remains whether TV Everywhere will eventually convert them to become paying cable customers when they graduate or if they will continue to use Mom and Dad’s account. That is something big cable might have to worry about, especially as the cost of services continues to increase.

Sharing versus stealing

So am I a thief? How about other users who share accounts? What happens when more people realize that they can use their family’s, friend’s or neighbor’s login to get access to a lot of the same content they would otherwise have to pay for, as long as they are willing to wait a day or two to watch it? What if they are willing to go halfsies on the account? Is that the same as hooking a splitter up to your coax and running it to the neighbor’s house? And what, if anything, can the cable industry do about us?

All of these are not necessarily questions that cable companies need to answer today. But they are definitely things that those companies should be thinking about.

Photo of money courtesy of Flickr user sushi?ina

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