Your colleague comes up to you during lunch and says, “I heard you talking about Making a Murderer earlier. I really want to watch, but I don’t have a Netflix account. Do you mind if I binge on your account? I’ll stop using it after that, I swear.”
What do you do?
Sharing login credentials to subscription-based streaming TV services is a widespread phenomenon. But when and with whom should you share? And when should you ask someone else for their credentials?
The streaming services often have built-in limits that prevent too many people from sharing the same account. Hulu only allows one stream at a time. HBO Go and HBO Now are meant to be used only within “households.” Netflix has three subscription tiers, which allow one, two, and four simultaneous streams, respectively (and are priced accordingly). Amazon Video allows up to two simultaneous streams.
The companies don’t intend for you to share your accounts with people outside your home. But that doesn’t mean that they necessarily want to stop the practice, either. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has called account sharing “a positive thing.” HBO CEO Richard Plepler said it’s a “terrific marketing vehicle” and has no impact impact on business. These companies aren’t trying to crack down on the practice, and it’s unclear if they ever will.
What about the law? Technically, sharing your password can violate a company’s terms of service, giving it legal grounds to sue you for breach of contract. Don’t worry—Netflix isn’t going to sue you for sharing, but the fact these terms exist may give you pause. Tennessee passed a law in 2011 that makes it illegal to share passwords to subscription-based streaming services and while it’s unlikely you’d be prosecuted, you share at your own peril in that state.
So when is it okay to share your password with another person? Here’s a quick guide:
Allowed: Sharing within your immediate household
Feel free to share your password with the people you actually live with. Not only is this acceptable, but many of the streaming services also encourage it. They know how silly it would be for every member of a household to have to pay for his or her own subscription. HBO, for instance, says that an HBO Now subscription “applies to your entire household.” Netflix offers a $12 a month “premium” plan that allows up to four simultaneous streams—meaning a family of four could all watch Netflix, in four separate rooms, on four separate screens. But that’s not very familial.
Things get a little murkier when you don’t live in the same home as your immediate family.
Allowed: Using your parents’ password while at college
Most college students do not have their own disposable incomes. If you’re lucky enough to be a college student with parents who pay for a streaming account, then, yes, get on that. Likewise, parents, please allow your children to mooch off of the family account for just a few more years, because as soon as they graduate and get a job…
Not allowed: Using your parents’ password after you get a job
Once you have the means to pay for Netflix or HBO on your own, you should do so. At this point, it’s probably more likely that your parents would want to mooch off of you—not the other way around. And you should let them, for helping you out all those years—as long as their reason for asking is not because they can’t figure out the technology.
Not allowed: Using your child’s password because you can’t figure out how to get your own account
Mom, this is not an excuse. It’s 2016, you must figure out how to sign up for Netflix on your own. And dad, it’s not called “The YouTube.” It’s just YouTube. And you don’t have to type “youtube” into Google to get there. You can just go straight to YouTube.com.
Allowed: Sharing with roommates—if you already split expenses/utilities
If you live with roommates and already split the cable TV bill, there isn’t any reason why you can’t split a streaming TV account. That said, you may run into some trouble trying to stream things simultaneously if you have more roommates than stream allotments.
So either sign up for a plan that allows for multiple streams, or come up with some sort of agreement on who gets to stream and when. If you can all easily afford your own subscriptions, then it’s better to just do that.
This, of course, presupposes that all parties involved agree on sharing. If you aren’t comfortable sharing your password with a roommate, then don’t. He or she is not entitled to it just because you live in the same space. And if you move into a place where someone already has an account, don’t assume that you automatically should get access to it. It’s okay to ask and offer to split the monthly bill, but don’t take it personally if the answer is no, and don’t do bad things to your roommate’s toothbrush afterward.
Gray area: Sharing with a partner you don’t live with
Generally, it’s okay to share a Netflix account with a boyfriend or girlfriend—not even House of Cards should come between true love. But be very, very vigilant. You must trust this person. It depends on how long you’ve known this person, how long you’ve been together, and whether or not there are things that you already share.
If you don’t trust your partner not to abuse Netflix privileges (like sharing it with other unsanctioned people), maybe you should consider reevaluating the entire relationship. If things go south and your partner ends up holding the Netflix password as collateral, it could erupt into full-scale war. Here’s what can happen if your ex still has access to your accounts.
Not allowed: Sharing with friends or colleagues long-term
They keyword here is “long-term.” If a good friend comes to you asking to use Netflix just once to watch a specific show he or she really wants to watch—and you trust this person—then it could be okay, but be smart about it. Be sure to lay down the rules: just this one show, and don’t share it with anyone else. Once that person is done with the series, change your password. If you’re the moocher in a situation like this, here’s a good guide on how to do so appropriately.
It’s not okay for platonic friends who don’t live with each other to share passwords over a long period of time. Don’t ask your colleague for his or her password, no matter how many times you go out to lunch with each other. If your colleague asks you for your password, either lie and say you don’t have one, or politely say that you’re not comfortable doing that but feel free to come over to watch Game of Thrones any time.
Not allowed: Sharing with other family members or randoms
“We usually like to think that a husband and wife can share an account and that that’s perfectly appropriate and acceptable,” Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said on an earnings call in 2013. “If you mean, ‘Hey, I got my password from my boyfriend’s uncle,’ then that’s not what we would consider appropriate.”
This is totally reasonable. Don’t share passwords with your in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins, secret lovers, or estranged spouses. Don’t share with a friend’s friend or even a family friend. Don’t share with your neighbors. Don’t share with the delivery guy.
The basic rule is that you should feel free to share with the people you live with—if you love them. If those people are just (trusted) friends, then it’s still usually permissible. Other than that (with a few exceptions, noted above), you shouldn’t really share with anyone else. Nor should you ask for someone’s password if that person is not a parent, child, or partner. Companies like Netflix, HBO, Hulu, and Amazon are extremely lenient about password-sharing—don’t abuse the system.
Want a better understanding Netflix and other streaming giants? Check out our guide to the streaming-TV wars