The Memo: Netflix and password sharing

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Netflix users be warned; UK government says password sharing may be a ‘criminal offence’

Cait Evans - 09 January 2023

The UK government has recently teamed up with Meta to provide new guidance on all things related to online piracy and copyright protection. For those with a penchant for tech, there’s plenty to get your teeth into, but there was one point in particular that stood out: password sharing may well amount to a criminal offence.

Before offering much more information, it was quickly removed from the website, but not before raising an interesting legal dilemma: Are you breaking the law when you share your streaming passwords?

The first thing to note is that in scrolling past the T&Cs, as all of us do, we miss important contractual terms. For example, Netflix’s Terms of Use clearly states that though content can be shared with people in the same household, passwords are expressly not to be. In technical terms, this could in theory constitute a secondary copyright infringement, as you are (at least in principle) facilitating the infringement of others. So, it’s bad news if you’ve given your partner free reign of your account, as technically, you’re breaking both contract and copyright law.

But whether you are committing a criminal offence is less clear. There are a few circumstances in which you can be considered to have committed a crime under copyright protection, but these are usually reserved for large-scale commercial offences, rather than individually sharing your password with another. Some have suggested the old common law offence of conspiracy to defraud could apply, but this is merely an idea, and an untested one at that. So, rest assured, you are extremely unlikely to find the police breaking down your door anytime soon.

Still, you could be challenged under civil law if streaming companies felt up to it, but it’s a logistical and financial challenge to do so, given its estimated around ¼ of UK households share their passwords. Nevertheless, Netflix is looking to change things up a bit to combat this, planning to charge users who share their passwords a little extra, a system they’ve already put to work in Peru, Chile, and Costa Rica. This will most likely be done by locating account users through IP addresses. How they will distinguish between password sharing and merely someone of the same household using Netflix at a different location remains to be seen. But regardless, if you’re still yet to boot your ex off your account, now is the time to do it!