The UK Government’s Intellectual Property Office released new piracy guidance. It contains one small detail that can be easily overlooked. Copyright law is violated when people share their Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Disney+ passwords. It gets worse.
The IPO informs reporters that password sharing could lead to criminal liability for fraud. After a limited launch of just 1,000 titles in 2007, Netflix now has more than 6,600 movies and TV shows and more than 223,000,000 subscribers.
Netflix password sharing was a key factor in the company’s growth. By publicly condoning the practice, it became completely accepted worldwide. It was clear that Netflix loved you, and you love Netflix. Now all your friends also love Netflix. Thank you for sharing.
Netflix and streaming platforms like Disney+ and Amazon Prime want you to continue loving them. But password sharing? It’s not so. Five years after Netflix’s now-famous tweet, the ground has begun to shift.
Netflix subscriber numbers dropped for the first time in its history earlier this year, and there is intense competition from Amazon Prime, Disney+, and HBO.
“Password sharing” is undergoing a complete overhaul in the background and industry. No one loves the ‘password piracy’ of today.
The situation within the ACE Antipiracy Coalition (which includes all streaming services mentioned above) is no different. ACE publicly prefers “unauthorized password sharing” as a descriptor, and elsewhere the phrase “without permission” is commonly used.
The Danish antipiracy group Rights Alliance refers to password sharing as “not permitted” in Denmark. However, this summer, there has been a small but important step forward.
The group stated that password sharing among Danes was alarmingly common and could eventually be considered illegal content consumption. Because password sharing is almost always considered a violation of streaming service terms of service, observers tend to portray it that way. Although password sharing isn’t illegal per se, Netflix and Co. don’t like it.
The announcement by the UK Government’s Intellectual Property Office was low-key. It announced a partnership with Meta to launch a new campaign to prevent online piracy and help consumers avoid counterfeit goods.
Meta is not mentioned in any accompanying advice except for the headline. There’s almost no advice that was issued previously. This is what it looks like:
Over the past few years, fraud has been the main charge in many large UK piracy cases. Even though the key offenses have a direct connection to copyright law, In the UK, fraud is a crime and could lead to job loss or termination. We ruled out fraud based on ‘being reasonable.
According to the IPO, there is no way to rule out anything. The IPO informed reporters that there are a variety of provisions in civil and criminal law that may apply to password sharing if the intention is to allow a user to access copyright-protected works for free.
These provisions could include fraud, breach of contract terms, or secondary copyright infringement, depending on the circumstances. The Crown Prosecution Service may decide otherwise. However, fraud is possible by using the “services of a members’ club” without paying or being a member.
While a subscription streaming service looking for a fraud victim might be legal, a PR disaster is not viable, especially when password sharing can be stopped using technical means. What other options are there?
The IPO also mentions other options directly related to contract law and licensing. Both of these laws govern subscriber behavior. When someone subscribes to a streaming service such as Netflix, so-called “terms of service” are part of their agreement.
Although few people will read all terms in detail, including when they are changed via email, Netflix’s agreement document gives specific rights to subscribers under contract and copyright law. Password sharing is not allowed beyond certain limits.
Interestingly, although sharing passwords can be described as “unauthorized” and “not allowed” by antipiracy groups or rights holders, it is still a serious criminal offense according to existing law.
However, the Intellectual Property Office did not declare password sharing illegal or a possible crime without good reason. Deterrence is the overall goal.
The UK is not able to criminalize tens of thousands of people. It’s a self-inflicted headache that the UK doesn’t need and can’t even begin to deal with. If streaming services wanted to end password sharing, they could already do so. It is another matter if they have the will.