Netflix and Chill Out


April 28, 2016 11:13AM

Have you ever borrowed someone’s Netflix account? What about Hulu or Spotify, or any other streaming service for that matter? If you have, then state legislators think you’re a criminal. Legislation in Tennessee has made password sharing a criminal offense.

The law was designed to reign in “password dealers,” or those who buy and sell streaming service passwords to large groups for below market value. So what’s the big deal? Surely punishing those people is a good thing. Yes, but it’s the unintended consequences of the law that could get others in trouble.

That’s because the law is directed at anyone who shares their password, not just those who buy them or hand them out to large groups of people. If parents were to give a babysitter their password, it would technically be a crime punishable by law.

Of course, no one meant for the law to target those people. Bill Ramsey, a Nashville lawyer who practices both entertainment law and criminal defense, said that he doubts the law would be used to ban people in the same household from sharing subscriptions, and that small-scale violations involving a few people would, in any case, be difficult to detect. That being said, the way the law is currently written it opens the door for these types of actions to land you in hot water.

None of this is to say that Netflix and other similar services should not have channels to protect their products. Netflix is perfectly within their rights if they decide to limit the number of devices an account may be logged in to, or to cancel the service of users who break their terms of service agreements. So what exactly does Netflix say about password sharing in that long terms of service nobody reads? It just says that if you wish to maintain exclusive control over your account and information, you shouldn’t share your password. Nowhere does Netflix explicitly prohibit the sharing of passwords.

The phrase the road to hell is paved with good intentions is used often, and probably too often, when describing policy. The phrase is used so often though because rarely are policies designed with bad intentions. I believe that lawmakers genuinely have the best interest of the public in mind, but many of the laws passed in Tennessee and elsewhere often have unintended consequences that are not fully thought through before passing a law.

While legislators’ intentions may have been in the right place, perhaps instead of creating more laws that could be used to target everyday citizens, they should consider repealing laws already on the book whose consequences have become evident, and are hurting Tennesseans.