A court ruling last week now means that the act of using someone else’s password to access an online service — including Netflix or HBO Go — without the authorization of the system’s owner may be considered a violation of federal computer law. But don’t panic: It’s not likely that subscription VOD providers will suddenly have the feds descend on people swapping their login credentials.
In a July 5 ruling in a case about a former employee at executive-search firm Korn Ferry, a three-judge panel of U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found that sharing passwords without the authorization of the system’s owner is a crime that can be prosecuted under the U.S. Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. That would potentially make millions of Americans “unwitting federal criminals,” according to a dissenting opinion by Judge Stephen Reinhardt as noted by Fortune.
To Reinhardt, the appeals court’s ruling would make it illegal to engage in some common examples of password-sharing, such as logging in to a Facebook account on behalf of a friend or relative. “The majority is wrong to conclude that a person necessarily accesses a computer account ‘without authorization’ if he does so without the permission of the system owner,” he wrote in his dissent.
The trend of people freeloading off the Netflix or HBO passwords of paying subs has long been a question facing the industry, and during the Primetime Emmy Awards last year host Andy Samberg even made a joke about it. A study last year by research firm Parks Associates suggested SVOD services would stand to lose upwards of $500 million in revenue in 2015 from the practice.
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