Blog Post

When does sharing become stealing?

I have a confession to make: Over the past two years, I have been watching HBO (s TWX) 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 (s NFLX) 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 (s CMCSA) 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 (s NFLX) 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

27 Responses to “When does sharing become stealing?”

  1. I love the fact that all of you… All of you are arguing about “paying for television”, as if cable programming is a necessity in life. If you can’t live in this world without your cable tv, then stop complaining about paying, period. NO one is forcing any of you to shell out $100+ a month for your consumerist peace of mind. So stop complaining. And to all those who “borrow” user credentials to watch content you don’t pay for, guess what, yes, it’s stealing. Period.

  2. Tom Nowicki

    I would say that it is not stealing. If you have a login but are not using it, you should be free to give it to someone. After all your account is entitled to one simultaneous stream at a time. Just because you yourself are not personally using it is immaterial – it is just associated with your account. Since there are limits on simultaneous streams, it is impossible for more than one person to derive value from the service at the same time.

    Further restricting it creates problems for families who want to share it within one household.

    The solution to this is simple: Cable companies should be getting people to use these services as much as possible, making it harder for people to share due to the stream limit. This should cause more people to sign up for the service to get their own login.

  3. It all depends on your alignment, how a person relates to the concepts of law and chaos. Lawful people completely abide by the laws made by lawmakers for the greater good. And there are those with neutral or chaotic alignments which require more flexibility and adaptability and serve the individual. Society and industry requires a balance of these alignments. We can argue about whether it’s stealing or sharing, but it won’t make a difference. It’s all a matter of alignment not opinion.

  4. Dan Workman

    #1) If you have to ask….
    #2) Of course it’s stealing. Otherwise, why write the article in the first place?
    #3) As the web economy becomes pervasive, there will be more of us who don’t want our content used without permission. This ‘problem’ is slowly going away. Sort of like how the hippies of the 60’s were finally co-opted by the very establishment that they railed against.

    • I suspect the article was written to invoke thought, not because it was a clearly decided topic. Otherwise the title would be: I’m a Thief and Proud.

      The web economy is pervasive.

      If you want to control your content then distribute it in ways that allow you to retain control. Computers are meant to copy files so don’t cry to me when people click two buttons on their keyboard against your wishes. It isn’t the job of the technology industry or congress to protect your business interest.

      The problem is going away because people realized you can’t absolutely control how people use something when they buy it, and the people who are uncomfortable with that thought are going to models where you don’t buy things, but get charged for access to them. The people who are comfortable with that are beginning to distribute their content without copy protection, and get to leverage the power of the internet distribution.

  5. I dropped cable service through U-Verse, but I couldn’t stand the thought of missing Eastbound & Down’s upcoming third season. I offered to pay for my parents to add HBO to their cable package and I use the login and password to catch HBO content via HBO Go on my iPad.

    I wish Showtime gave me a way to watch their programming without stealing it. I’d gladly pay for Shameless and Homeland.

  6. I think you’ve embarrassed your employer without knowing it. That’s bad form.

    Thank God all the net-neutrality believers are at ease with future hikes in bandwidth costs, when the cable guys say they need to charge more because of all the tv streaming. Because…. You can’t hold it against the provider. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?

    Net- neutrality = biggest rope-a-dope coming down the pike. they will be stealing from you soon enough, so don’t act so clever, Bevis.

  7. Not sure if I would call it stealing but this problem has been solved by Steam. You can login and install and play all your games on ANY computer you are logged in at BUT you can only be logged in on one computer at a time… see how that solves the over sharing issue?

  8. brianhayashi1

    The specific term for what you are doing is “signal theft”. Signal theft was one of the main reasons why broadband cable took so long to deploy. Signal theft started when people broke into an apartment’s main cable box and hooked up their TV to the main trunk. The conventional wisdom was it was fine as long as you didn’t get caught. The problem was that the average person didn’t know and didn’t care about the fine points of cable wiring, and most hacks into the cable box were sloppy. Analog systems didn’t have the same signal hygiene requirements as digital, so the extent of the signal theft wasn’t noticed until they tried to light up entire systems. That’s when they realized that Mr and Mrs Smith’s problems with their digital cable was directly attributable to the egress caused by their neighbor’s signal theft. Consequently, cablers typically have more people attuned to the idea of signal theft than any other industry, and while you may think you have a free pass today, the chances are good that this will probably be obsolesced by two-step authentication.

    • I agree with you about the two-factor authentication among other things. There are many ways to limit the access to an account through a website, and if their intention is to limit the access of the account to one actual person then that is what they’ll have to do.

      Again though it isn’t “theft” or “stealing” in the case you mentioned above that was breaking and entering, and trespassing. Terming it theft causes confusion. People understood they were breaking in to the box, and that they were trespassing placing equipment where they didn’t have any legal right to be.

      With the cable television industry you are running into a business model that flies in the face of what consumers want to pay for. When you are forcing people into a business model that is against their wishes, I don’t have any sympathy for you when they try skirt your control. However I do there are legal issues that do need protection, but I certainly don’t care about your misfortune.

  9. Vernon Washington

    I strongly disagree that this should not be considered stealing. For example Netflix gives you about five passes to use. Is that stealing. Who’s to determine who I can give my Five passes to. What I think the solution should be is to have a predetermined number of passes your allowed to use let’s say five and if you want more you’ll have to pay for more. But to call someone a thief for giving their pass to a friend or family when the issuing company has not set the proper limits is unfair.

  10. Stealing is not really the correct word for this. Perhaps trespassing is a better word though I’m not sure that fits either. Whether or not it is trespassing is entirely up to the EULA. I suspect this is very nuanced case, which is why this is more a thought experiment. As to whether or not it is in keeping with the “spirit” of it does not matter. This is a case of the person who distributed the information staying within their contractual obligations, and they either did or didn’t. There is no “spirit” involved in the contract. You cannot ascribe emotion to a contract like that it serves only to create FUD.

    The legal questions aside there are many technical solutions to restricting streaming content and protecting against the scenario you explained. So I hope this doesn’t turn out to be another case where congress gets paid to legislate a business model into further legal protection rather then allowing the content industry to naturally innovate around the security issues their business model encounters. Much as the technology industry already does.

    Again people made the fallacy of assuming that because you are viewing the content you would have paid for access to it otherwise, and are therefore free loading. There are plenty of scenarios where people would accept something for free, but wouldn’t pay a dime for it otherwise. This is definitely a gray area when it comes to calculating the actual harm caused in this scenario; there certainly is some, but it definitely isn’t the full price of the subscription.

    • Ryan Lawler

      Thanks for the response. To your point: I’m willing to pay for content if it’s available within a reasonable window after broadcast. As I wrote above, I’ve paid for season passes of many AMC and FX series on iTunes, that were available the day after they aired. The HBO and Showtime series noted above do not make their shows available in digital format for months after they’re broadcast, which means that I generally wouldn’t pay for it anyway.

      • Exactly. AMC and FX are smart and understand the situation. If we make our content easily available and in a timely fashion then people will pay for it…and therefore reduce “piracy”. Just like what iTunes/iPod did for music. However there are companies like TW (HBO owner, I believe) that believe everyone is a pirate, we need to restrict access to our content as much as possible, we need to charge as much as possible….and then complain and whine when their content is pirated. Will they ever learn? Doubt it.

      • rick gregory

        Ah yes, the “I’m willing to pay if the person with the content will do what I want – but otherwise I’ll just pirate.”

        You’re stealing. Period. And it’s people like you that make it hard to have conversations with rightsholders because you arrogantly assume that the world should work the way you want it to and, if it doesn’t, that entitles you to just take what you want.

        Quick everyone, let’s start sharing GigaOMPro accounts!!! I’d pay for that, but hey, I don’t want to. Of course, that’s different, isn’t it Ryan? THAT content helps pay you.

      • It is not stealing, use another word. Words have definitions and that is not the definition of stealing. Even if 100% of people were currently paying for content viewable in a medium without copy protection rights holders would still be reluctant to release their content. It is a control issue.

        In this case there are technological means to exert control over account access. Talk to your average IT sysadmin. Placing controls that act against the way a piece of technology is meant to function is where the issues come in. Computers are meant to transmit copies of things exactly as they exist bit for bit. So it is difficult to prevent a computer from copying something.

        In that same vain is the issue of preventing humans from acting in their nature. It is difficult to stop somebody from doing something that they are accustomed to. People were used to sharing music loaning books etc. When you start using technology to prevent people from consuming media in the ways their used to it frustrates and confuses them. That is much of where these issues come from.

        Mislabeling things only serves to worsen this. When you lie and say something is stealing when it isn’t, or when you claim someone stole millions or billions from you and they didn’t, then you are creating a credibility problem.

        If you look at the people who are successfully making money off their creations in the digital realm without imposing draconian technology breaking restrictions, they create a relationship of trust with their buyer. You can buy this media from me and I trust you to use it how you see fit without stealing from me.

        The large industry media clearing houses have lost the trust of their consumers for good reason. They promote corruption in politics and are perceived as seeking unjust compensation for their work. Buying something from these companies does not work the same as any other financial transaction. You don’t really own anything, you aren’t really buying anything.

        It seems that a streaming model will allow for the control the content clearing houses would like while still allowing customers to consume the media. If they want to they’ll lock down the usage of accounts to protect against account sharing. Even still they won’t place their media online because it isn’t good enough to just be paid; they also have to create artificial channels and availability windows to eke out more profit for no additional value to the customer, and this is where the problems begin.

  11. gonzo90017

    Well I guess it depends. Take Espn for example. My friend wanted access to Espn3 so I hooked him up with an account. Is it stealing? Not in my book. He has an always will have satellite or cable. He already pays for ESPN so why shouldn’t he get access? Just because Time Warner sucks and ESPN wants to nickel and dime him?

  12. I would have to agree with Rebecca, if you’re looking at pirating in its most basic form, this would definitely be it. Do I look down on it for occurring, no, but that’s because I am realistic and know for every law, someone will inevitably break it.

    I also agree that there are not as many people sharing subscriptions to these services yet so it doesn’t send a huge red flag to the cable and streaming companies, but if enough people start abusing their services you will see an increase in prices for services. If you’ve enjoyed your free service and hope to continue reaping the benefits of streaming I would consider starting to pay for them on your own.

  13. rick gregory

    Yeah, I have to agree with Rebecca. Students away at college… a bit more of an edge issue, but people sharing content who don’t otherwise live under the same roof is pretty clearly against the spirit of the concept. TV Everywhere is pretty obviously meant to enable people who pay for a package to enjoy it when they’re not at home, not so that they can share around the password and give away the content.

  14. Rebecca Thorman

    Um, that is pirating. And it’s what’s driving the price up for everyone and keeping the cable industry a horrible industry to be a customer in. If you want quality content, pay for it. Not a difficult concept.

    • just wondering what if his friend is not using the web account and just uses his cable to watch TV. Is it still stealing.
      Secondly, you seriously believe that cable price rise is because of TV piracy ?

    • Rebecca, your argument has no merit. Unless you work in the financial department of Comcast, how can you possibly know what affects their profit and loss or pricing?

      If you want to debate your high cost of cable, do some research and produce real arguments. Not a difficult concept.