I’ve been fascinated by the recent controversy over technology reporter Jenna Wortham’s “confession” in the New York Times that she uses shared passwords to access subscription video services such as Netflix and HBO Go. In particular, Wortham mentions that she and a group of friends rely on a single user’s HBO Go password to watch the popular show, Game of Thrones (which also happens to be the most pirated show on TV). As Wortham’s comments suggest, the act of password sharing is relatively commonplace, so much so that I imagine Wortham gave very little thought to describing her friends’ behavior on the pages of a national newspaper. Of course, as Mike Masnick of Tech Dirt reports, Wortham’s behavior is also, strictly speaking, illegal, a violation of both the Digital Millennial Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), and her actions could be punished by up to a year in prison. As Masnick describes it, her actions specifically violate the anti-circumvention clause of the DMCA becuase she is engaging in activity that allows her to work around a technical protection measure.
But as Masnick also observes, these acts often criminalize behavior that many people do every day, often without thinking about it. In this sense, password sharing is, as David Thier argues, a “legalish” activity, easy to do and difficult to police. With that distinction in mind, when I first heard about the discussion of Wortham’s column, my initial reaction was to compare password sharing to speeding on an interstate highway. Almost everyone speeds on interstates, as opposed to, say, school zones, where the policing is tighter and the consequences of negligent behavior are potentially far more devastating. And as long as you are within a reasonable distance of the posted limit, police are likely to leave you alone. And when police have set up speed traps, other drivers typically alert each other by flashing headlights or tapping their brakes. Further, when we know we’re being watched, such as speed zones where the police have set up cameras or other automatic detection equipment, we play by the rules. Most people feel little guilt for slightly exceeding the speed limit and some even take pride in reaching their destination in a shorter time.
This isn’t a perfect metaphor, however, given that speeding drivers don’t affect the value of the highway on which they are driving. While we can make some judgments about which shows are most likely to be pirated, it’s a little more difficult to tell how much password sharing is taking place (although my own research suggests that it’s pretty rampant, at least on college campuses). The next closest metaphor I could come up with compared password sharing to something like taking from a soda fountain at a fast food restaurant. Although probably less common, it’s possible to imagine someone using their own cup (rather than paying 99 cents for a cup at the counter) and helping oneself to some diet soda or root beer. It’s possible that the same person could share their soda with someone else or several people and even go back up for refills. Each of these actions result in “lost” revenue for the restaurant. Instead of selling three large sodas, they’ve sold one or none. But the production costs of that soda (i.e., the contents of the fluid, the cup itself, etc) are often relatively minimal, especially compared to the production costs of a movie or TV show. So obviously, there are some ethical and legal issues at stake here, but as Thier and others have suggested, that blurry area where behavior becomes “legalish” raises some interesting challenges for content providers and consumers. No one is likely to send the copyright police to knock on Wortham’s door. And many of the VOD services, including Netflix, even allow for some flexibility regarding password sharing.
The ethical (and business) implications of many of these issues were addressed in a New York Times public editor column. One observer bluntly suggested that Wortham’s actions were essentially “stealing,” while others likened her actions to “piracy.” And given that the New York Times is itself attempting to adjust to a digital business model by limiting non-subscribers to ten or so free articles per month, Wortham’s actions might be read as a form of hypocrisy. How are her actions different than those readers who might try to work around the Times‘ own pay wall? Wortham admits to being somewhat “conflicted” about her practice of password sharing, and thus far, many VOD services have taken a somewhat casual approach to enforcement. Rather than stopping people from drinking soda from the same cup, most providers have allowed some sharing, although Wortham does mention that Amazon blocks people from watching the same show at the same time on two different devices while using the same account.
But as Wortham’s article points out, the focus on policing password sharing–or piracy for that matter–might prevent us from acknowledging the role of password sharing as a means of creating a shared social experience around a television series. By watching Game of Thrones or Friday Night Lights “together,” even if we are not in the same shared space, it is a form of collective activity. In turn, the Netflix “family accounts,” which allow limited password sharing may even open up a redefinition of what counts as a family unit (an issue I addressed in my article for Screen and that I discuss in my forthcoming book). In turn, Wortham points to the efforts of services such as GetGlue and the more recent Vdio that promote forms of simultaneous or near-simultaneous viewing. And I think this is where activities such as binge watching shows like House of Cards come into play. Many television fans are seeking to be part of a shared experience and seek out opportunities to discuss, dissect, blog, and tweet their favorite shows. Many of these viewers may be outliers compared to the casual fans who watch when they can, but each of these modes of watching and many others are enabled in our on-demand culture. And Wortham’s column gets at the complexities of these issues in a pretty powerful way.