When the Olympics come around, the cable guy has an awful way of making us feel like criminals.
It happens like this: You're telling your buddy about Lindsey Vonn's big downhill run, but he doesn't have a way to watch. It's possible to stream all this stuff through apps in 2018 — but he needs a password from a pay TV provider.
And then comes the digital dilemma. Can you give your log-in to your friend? What about your kid in college? The same issue returns around big Netflix releases and HBO when there's a new season of Game of Thrones. Is that sharing … or stealing?
Good luck getting a straight answer from the fine print in your contract. So I had some extremely awkward conversations with cable and streaming companies, lawyers, and industry insiders about what's permitted — and what's ethical. I came to the conclusion it's often OK to share a log-in, so long as it's limited to someone in your family or a close friend.
To be clear, I'm not advocating passing around log-ins willy-nilly. Sharing a password on Craigslist or with everyone in a dorm is, first of all, a security risk — hackers will get their hands on it. Using someone else's password, even with their permission, can be a legal gray zone, though nobody's been charged with a crime for sharing streaming video. There's also less of an excuse to be a total freeloader since it's become possible in the last two years to buy TV through streaming apps such as Sling TV and HBO Now.
But don't fall for a guilt trip, either. Many distributors and channel owners I spoke with insisted on being vague about their policies, tacitly acknowledging that they see some degree of sharing as either a cost of business or a form of marketing. And the smartest TV companies sell packages in ways that make sharing a shame-free part of the service.
Last year, research firm Parks Associates found that 16 percent of U.S. households with broadband admitted either borrowing video log-ins or sharing their own credentials. For many people under 40, sharing is a relationship test: There's dating and then there's HBO-password official.
A few companies say they consider this behavior stealing. "Charter believes that password sharing is a copyright infringement," said Nathalie Burgos, a spokeswoman for America's second-largest cable company. "The intended use of the service is for members of the subscribing household. We would not encourage other uses," said Todd Smith, a spokesman for Cox Communications.
Most, however, wouldn't go that far — and what they don't say is just as instructive as what they do. (See below for our analysis of a dozen providers.)
Almost all TV companies provide simultaneous streams to facilitate sharing. The sticking point is who's allowed to participate. Some traditional cable companies say it's for a single household only. What defines a household? Most don't really say. A Comcast spokeswoman came closest by calling it "members of the family that share the same permanent residence," but also clarified those people "may reside in different locations at times (such as a child in college)."
Adding to the confusion, app policies are often specific to the network, not the pay-TV provider that gives you a log-in. NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast, said its NBC Sports app with Olympics coverage should be used only "by the account holder and those in their primary residence." HBO said a household could have up to three simultaneous streams that includes a kid away at college.
Could sharing be illegal? Courts have applied a 1986 computer fraud and abuse law to forbid sharing passwords to databases and social-media sites. But there's confusion on the rationale behind those rulings, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others have called on Congress to clarify whether password sharing is a crime.
At least for now, companies seem focused on extreme abuses, such as hundreds of streams at once. Comcast said a log-in it suspects is being used inappropriately "would not be cut off" — but the company might make contact or ask for a password reset.
Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, speaking in 2016, called sharing passwords "something you have to learn to live with" because there's so much legitimate use by families.
The most internet-savvy of TV companies do away with some of this ambiguity by letting us figure out how we want to distribute the streams we pay for.
Amazon allows you to share Prime membership benefits, including streaming video, with another person who doesn't have to share your address. You will, however, have access to each others' credit cards.
Netflix and AT&T's DirecTV both sell packages with multiple streams, and appear to give us leeway in using them. A spokeswoman for the Dish Network and its sister streaming service Sling TV said its focus is on too many simultaneous log-ins rather than "who is using an account."
It's a great point: In the internet age, why should TV providers be in the business of deciding who you consider close?
Good TV is expensive: NBC paid $963 million to broadcast the 2018 Olympics. Of course, companies need to be able to protect the value of their services by making them scarce.
But the internet also has the potential to get a generation that might never buy cable to pay for TV online.
Not long ago, the only choice beyond a TV antenna was a cable or satellite hookup. But as broadband internet became common, some channels began streaming as a benefit to cable subscribers. With a log-in from your pay TV provider, you could use a TV Everywhere app to watch HBO or NBC Sports on your phone or a Web browser you're hiding from your boss.
This fueled sharing, because for years using a TV Everywhere log-in was the only easy way to watch online. Borrowed passwords started making the rounds on campuses and among people who had never subscribed to cable.
But since the last Winter Olympics, TV has come a long way toward catching up with the internet. Some of the most popular networks, such as HBO and CBS, joined Netflix in selling streaming directly. There's still no way to buy online access to just the Olympics from NBC, but there are now ways to get the equivalent of a cable TV package through an app. Cable-cutting services such as Hulu with Live TV, YouTube TV, Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, and DirecTV Now offer a patchwork of streaming channels, though they're not available everywhere.
Now that the business of TV on the internet is growing, it puts password sharing in a different light.
Brett Sappington, a director of research at Park Associates, estimates that sharing cost the TV industry $3.5 billion in 2017. But he's not just wagging a finger at us. "Ultimately, the solution is to turn it into a market opportunity, rather than a reason to enforce strict rules," Sappington told me. "Do you really want to be in a position where you are suing your own customers?"
Most people want to do the right thing, or at least the easy thing. But now, TV is scattered among so many offers — cable providers and streaming services, all with different content — that it can be hard to tell when it's worth paying for a service. Sampling off a friend's account can be the gateway to fully subscribing, or deciding that you're only interested in the Olympics.
HBO, for one, has focused on building a fan base. It now gives free streaming access to students who live on campus in dozens of universities.
When households take on free trials of streaming services, about half of the time they end up subscribing to at least one, said Sappington. TV providers just have to figure out how to treat folks dipping into their services like potential customers rather than criminals.
We asked TV companies about their policies on sharing streaming access with family and close friends, and grouped them based on our own analysis of what they say — and don't say.
They've drawn a line in the sand