Imagine settling down to watch the next season of Outer Banks on Netflix, only to find that you’ve been locked out of your account. And it’s not because your Mum’s ex-boyfriend’s sister, who pays for the account, finally decided to change her password. No, it was Netflix themselves who cut you off. Why? As part of a new crackdown on password sharing, a practice that has become a cultural norm for many, especially when it comes to streaming services like Netflix.
It wasn’t long ago that Netflix seemed to have embraced password sharing. In 2017, they even tweeted, “Love is sharing a password”. But now, as we approach the five-year mark since that tweet, it seems that the company’s attitude is changing. According to Business Insider, a new policy targeting password sharing is set to take effect in the US by the end of March. Devices must connect to the account owner’s home network at least once every 31 days, or risk being locked out, says a now-deleted post on Netflix’s US Help Center. Anyone living outside the household will need their own subscription.
This policy shift has ignited discussions and debates. International students, for example, who share an account with family back home, will be directly affected. It’s not practical to fly home every month, nor is it affordable to subscribe to Netflix as a college student on a tight budget. Others, like couples living apart, frequent travellers, and even local college students living on campus, will also be impacted. And let’s not forget the countless complicated situations, like friends sharing accounts or divorced parents sharing one for their children.
Netflix’s decision to implement a policy change that is sure to elicit the ire of its subscribers and the press begs a crucial question: why? The answer, it seems, lies in a convergence of challenges faced by the company, including intensifying competition, sluggish growth, and even a loss of subscribers in early 2022. However, it perceives one of its most pressing challenges to be the sheer number of people who share passwords. In January, Netflix informed shareholders that over 100 million households engage in account sharing, out of their 231 million memberships. Limiting password sharing aims to encourage these individuals to become paying members once their access is curtailed. Even if only a portion of that 100 million converts to paid subscribers, Netflix stands to benefit greatly.
As Netflix cracks down on password sharing, it raises important questions about the legal framework surrounding copyright protection, the role of the open access movement, and how the entertainment industry is evolving. This article will delve deeper into these topics, exploring the tensions between protecting intellectual property and ensuring access to entertainment and culture for all. We will also examine alternative approaches that prioritize the public interest over corporate profits, highlighting examples of how some organizations are working to build a more equitable and sustainable entertainment ecosystem.
Entertainment and Accessibility
Participation in contemporary culture demands more than just a passing glance at the headlines. Hit shows like Netflix’s Squid Game, which amassed a staggering 1.6 billion hours watched in the first 28 days of its release, transcend mere entertainment to become cultural phenomena. These hits fuel conversations and discussions that define our shared experiences, but to truly engage in such discourse, one must first have access to the content through a subscription. With popular shows scattered across multiple platforms, the costs of cultural participation can quickly add up.
For instance, the television hit Ted Lasso is exclusive to Apple TV+, while The Mandalorian is a Disney+ original. Each of these services incurs a separate cost, and when combined, their monthly fees can be financially challenging for some and downright unaffordable for others. This has resulted in certain aspects of entertainment and culture becoming inaccessible to those unable to afford these subscriptions, leaving us to wonder how many of those 1.6 billion hours were watched via shared passwords on accounts that individuals didn’t pay for themselves.
For those who can’t afford to subscribe to every streaming service, password sharing can provide important access to popular culture. Nevertheless, companies like Netflix consider these users as lost revenue and often categorise their actions as “piracy”—a criminal act of theft. But are these assumptions an oversimplification of a more complex issue? For one, if someone is sharing a password because they can’t afford Netflix, they aren’t going to contribute to the company’s revenue anyway. Thus, whether or not this cohort shares a password is of little consequence, as they lack funds to give to Netflix in the first place. Allowing low-income individuals to watch Netflix may not result in increased revenue for the company, but it does allow them to participate in the culture of Netflix’s content.
Furthermore, the legality of password sharing is a more nuanced issue than it may seem at first. The research of John Mixon delves into various legal perspectives on this matter. Mixon explains that while password sharing may violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse act, judges have only enforced this law in cases where someone’s access was revoked, yet they continued to access the system using another’s password. Thus, this law applies only to those who ended their Netflix membership and then used someone else’s account. Another act, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, aims to prevent unauthorised access to copyrighted materials, such as films and TV shows. Mixon contends that sharing a Netflix is a direct violation of this act, yet concludes that suing all password sharers would be impractical to the company. Such drastic action would make little sense, as Netflix’s goal is to encourage more people to subscribe to their service, rather than punishing them through legal action.
In light of the infeasibility of judicial enforcement, the onus of upholding user policy falls squarely on Netflix, rather than the courts. The practicality of who has access to Netflix and how they use the streaming platform rests entirely on the technological infrastructure and design of Netflix’s website and application. This brings us to a critical ethical question: With Netflix having the authority to dictate how users access its services, is it ethical for the company to introduce a policy that could disproportionately affect certain populations, such as low-income individuals, students, and non-traditional households?
With film and television clearly integral to one’s participation in culture, it may seem grossly unjust to allow a corporation to jeopardise that access by restricting alternative means of access for those with little means. However, as Mixon noted, password sharing is considered an act of copyright infringement and therefore illegal, so there is no possibility of protection from the law—in fact, quite the opposite. Furthermore, there is still no unanimous agreement that media entertainment should be regarded as an inalienable right. The closest we have come to this is with Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which describes every person’s right to “participate in the cultural life of the community, [and] to enjoy the arts”. Therefore, the discontinuation of Netflix password sharing is a harsh reality that many will soon need to confront.
On its own, Netflix’s policy change represents an inconvenience to those who can’t afford their own account. Fortunately, there exists an abundance of alternative streaming services that have chosen not to enforce rules against password sharing. But this relief may prove fleeting. When Apple removed the headphone jack from its new iPhones in 2016, it was mocked by its competitor, Samsung, who used this as a point of differentiation between their products to encourage users to switch. Yet, in less than three years, Samsung followed Apple and removed the port from its phones, having observed Apple’s success in selling billions of dollars of wearables like Airpods due to the change. In a recent article from USA Today, widespread crack-downs on password sharing are described as “a new reality of streaming”.
As streaming rapidly becomes the primary mode of media consumption for most individuals, those without the means to pay subscription fees may find themselves locked out of most media content. Beyond the obvious implications for economic inequality, this disparity speaks to a deeper issue of accessibility and equity that warrants further attention.
The Open Access Model
In looking for solutions, we must sometimes first search for parallels to our problems. Within academia, access to literature is an ongoing issue, with a 2019 study of the issue citing that roughly 70% of scholarly documents sit behind paywalls. This poses a significant challenge to the advancement of academia, as much valuable information is available only to those who can afford its steep costs.
Enter Open Access, a concept pioneered by Peter Suber, who describes it as “literature [that] is digital, online, free of charge, and free of most copyright and licensing restrictions.” Suber is a champion of sharing scientific knowledge and is frustrated by the paywalls and subscriptions that often prevent it. He argues that the relentless profiteering within academic publishing exacerbates existing inequalities by limiting access to published literature to an elite few, such as Harvard, which was subscribed to almost 98,000 serial publications back in 2008.
Video streaming services operate on a surprisingly similar model to academic publishers. Users pay a recurring subscription fee which allows them access when subscribed, and that access ends when payments stop. As Suber notes, most content subscriptions are individually affordable, yet when considering the quantity of content a person might reasonably need or want to consume, the costs quickly become unaffordable. Just as researchers require broad access to scholarly literature, individuals crave broad availability of entertainment content. Despite their superficial differences, the cost barriers in academia and entertainment pose similar threats to content accessibility. Indeed, subscription-based models can create obstacles for those who cannot afford to subscribe to multiple services, just as academic paywalls impede knowledge dissemination and exacerbate inequality.
YouTube, a ubiquitous video-sharing platform, offers a compelling example of a functional open-access model for video entertainment. Its users can upload content for free, which can then be accessed by viewers without a subscription fee. However, despite its accessibility, it fails to provide a substitute for subscription-based services such as Netflix. One reason for this is the abundance of low-quality content, particularly aimed at children, that pervades the platform. Additionally, YouTube videos tend to be short-form content created by independent creators, which diverges significantly from the Hollywood-style fare that Netflix and other streaming services offer. YouTube has endeavoured to address this disparity by investing hundreds of millions of dollars in original shows, but, regrettably, these efforts were regarded as a flop and terminated in early 2022, according to The Verge. Although the open access model is an admirable approach to democratising entertainment content, it struggles to match the quality provided by paid streaming services, rendering it an inadequate competitor or substitute. Consequently, those seeking a superior solution must search elsewhere.
Piracy as Open Access
If a user cannot afford the steep monthly subscription costs demanded by popular video streaming services, there is always an alternative: downloading films and television shows from dubious, free online repositories. With password sharing on the way out, piracy presents itself as an increasingly alluring option. Piracy represents a strange inversion of the open access model, allowing the free and unbridled dissemination of entertainment to all corners of the internet. Although piracy remains a crime in the US and around the globe, a 2022 study investigating anti-piracy measures noted that pirates generally “do not consider themselves as thieves”. Instead, the piracy community has positively re-framed the act as “fighting the system” or simply “file sharing”.
To some, piracy is considered a simple solution to bridge the access gap. Once more, we can look to academia to understand how such a model may work. In a 2020 study, researchers examined the viability of scholarly pirate libraries in increasing access to academic literature and knowledge. Instead of purchasing access, which many cannot afford, people can download literature from illegal online repositories such as Library Genesis, which held over 2.3 million records as of 2019. Yet, surprisingly, the study found that gross income and piracy are positively correlated in the academic space. Simply put, the more money one has, the more likely they are to pirate.
A parallel phenomenon has been observed in the crime of shoplifting, with a 2008 study concluding that wealthy, educated individuals were significantly more likely to engage in the crime. Consequently, the authors suggest that “financial considerations are unlikely to be the main motivator for shoplifting in most cases”. So why do privileged individuals appear to have a greater tendency to steal? The study makes no attempt to answer this question, but anecdotes from psychological professionals interviewed by The Guardian suggest a variety of reasons. “Self-medicating” for past trauma, the “excitement” of committing a criminal act, or simply a kleptomaniacal “addiction” are all proposed as potential motivators.
Regardless of the specific reason, this type of theft appears inherently irrational because it is conducted by a group with little need to steal and an education that ensures they understand the criminality of their actions. As with shoplifting, financial concerns may not be the primary motivator for acts of piracy. Instead, there may be other factors such as convenience, availability, or the thrill of breaking the law that motivate individuals to engage in piracy. This notion is underscored by the research conducted on pirate libraries, discussed earlier. In the case of academic piracy, researchers and scholars from affluent backgrounds may still resort to piracy because they face limitations in accessing certain content, despite their access to various subscriptions. They might also choose to use pirate libraries because they provide an easier, more efficient way to access specific material—even if they already have access to the material they’re pirating.
At first glance, much like open access, piracy appears to hold significant promise for increasing access to entertainment content, especially for those who cannot afford to pay for it. However, it seems that the convenience and openness of piracy are disproportionately used to advantage the wealthy, eroding much of the positive justification for piracy in the face of its clear illegality. Those labelling their theft as “fighting the system” are in fact fighting for nothing but their own interests. Their euphemistic language only serves to promote a culture of “moral disengagement” where digital thieves can no longer perceive their crimes as wrong, or even as crimes at all.
This raises questions about the ethical implications of Netflix cracking down on password sharing and labelling it as piracy. By doing so, the company may unintentionally push people towards actual piracy, especially those who cannot afford multiple subscriptions. Additionally, assuming that piracy is driven solely by financial concerns fails to address other motivations behind it, such as convenience and access to diverse content. Regardless, the illegal nature of piracy and its countless inherent flaws make it difficult to recommend as an alternative to password sharing or video streaming services in general.
The Public Library
The introduction of piracy, enabled by the explosion of the World Wide Web, offered a new perspective on what it means for content to be free and open. Yet it is important to recognise an institution that has long worked towards the goal of democratising such culture and knowledge: the public library.
In Sigler’s 1978 article detailing film’s rise to prevalence within the public library system, we discover that rise began extremely early on, almost two decades before the invention of the first television. In 1910, according to Sigler, a Wisconsin library became the first to display a film, and a few years later, another library in Milwaukee installed a projector to show films to the public. The notion that film was “of public necessity” was quickly catching on, and the consensus from within libraries was that film “should not be dominated by the commercial theatres”. From the start, libraries positioned themselves as competitors to capitalist film consumption.
But there was another notable development occurring within these pioneering libraries: curation. While in 1924 the American Library Association boldly proclaimed there was no educational medium with “greater possibilities than the film”, Sigler posits there was an early understanding that the impact of film extended beyond mere education. “Program balance”, Sigler writes, was paramount when selecting films, necessitating a search for those that would bring “laughter and thrills” in addition to those that would only instruct. Curation is a distinctly human art, and it could present a vital advantage for libraries today, even as on-demand video services like Netflix continue to dominate.
When WarnerMedia’s HBO Max launched as a competitor to Netflix in 2020, the company sought to differentiate itself as a “human-first platform”. HBO Max offered collections of recommended films curated by humans, rather than algorithms, and was working towards a social feature where friends would be able to give each other recommendations, too. This launch was significant because it exemplified a public counter-strategy to the status quo of distinctly un-human algorithmic recommendation. In contrast to HBO Max, Netflix’s secretive recommendation algorithm makes use of machine learning to translate explicit and implicit behaviours into lists of content it believes the user will enjoy. With over a decade of refinement, Netflix’s algorithm not only recommends related content but also helps users “find shows that they might not have initially chosen”.
Yet when discussing the benefits and drawbacks of both companies’ attempts to curate their content, it is often forgotten that there can be no winner, and that is due to the content itself. With each service limited to recommending only what’s within its library—whether produced in-house or sourced via temporary license—no single platform can claim complete victory. In fact, the race for market dominance has given rise to a troubling phenomenon: content separation, exacerbated with every new player in the game.
Consider Disney+, which is known for a narrow but deep collection of content that centres around Star Wars, Marvel, Princesses, and re-makes of Disney’s classic animated films. While undoubtedly popular, this narrow focus has left many users wanting more. Variety reported that over 60% of Disney+ users wanted the company to expand beyond its homogenous catalogue of children’s programming. However, Disney, being a family-centric brand, has relegated more mature content to its Hulu service, leaving these viewers in the lurch.
In contrast, public libraries possess a rare advantage over the multi-billion dollar streaming industry: they experience no such limitations on their catalogues, allowing them to offer a human-curated selection of film and television content. Moreover, libraries have managed to sidestep the growing trend towards content-platform exclusivity. They are free to acquire and lend out whatever content they deem to be most valuable, independent of the politics of short-term licensing deals and costly original productions.
As competition in the video streaming market continues to intensify, confusion reigns. According to The National Interest, almost half of consumers are confused about “what shows are on which streaming services”. Surprisingly, though, many of the most popular original streaming programs are available through public libraries in the form of DVDs. For example, the Caddot Community Library in Wisconsin offers Netflix originals like Stranger Things, The Crown, and Orange Is the New Black. Furthermore, libraries have generous borrowing policies when it comes to DVDs, with New York Public Library allowing patrons to check out up to 10 DVDs at once.
Of course, as with every solution, there are downsides to borrowing DVDs from a library. On the popular online forum site, Reddit, some users report encountering “scratched” disks that impede playback, the “previous person losing [a] disk” for a TV series, and the “queue” for new releases. Moreover, in order to play DVDs, one must own a DVD player. Data from Nielsen shows that DVD player ownership is declining, with 65% of households owning one in 2018, a percentage that is likely to be lower today.
Despite these concerns, the experience of borrowing DVDs from a library is generally considered to be a positive one. Recent research found a growth of 43.7% in the size of video collections at public libraries between 2014 and 2019, patrons often praise the quality of the content and care devoted to these collections. Librarians are known to repair or replace damaged disks, and some libraries reportedly carry catalogues of high-quality Blu-rays from the Criterion Collection, which would cost over $40 each to purchase on one’s own.
Although easily overlooked, public libraries may be the solution to open access to entertainment in the face of rising costs to access streaming services and increased restrictions on how those services are used. While there are drawbacks associated with this approach, most importantly the need for a DVD player, borrowing films and television shows from a library is often free and comes with generous borrowing limits. Additionally, libraries often carry classic and hard-to-find titles that may not be available on commercial streaming services, making the library an appealing option even for those who can afford multiple subscriptions.
With the widespread adoption of streaming as the new norm for film and television consumption, Netflix’s impending ban on password sharing threatens to disrupt the industry and limit access to entertainment to those who rely upon it. Unfortunately, there are no legal protections for accessing cultural and entertainment content, leaving users to seek alternatives if they want to watch videos without breaking the bank.
While open access models, such as YouTube, may shift production costs from content distributors to creators through sponsorships and advertising, they offer a fundamentally different type of content and may not be a genuine competitor to Netflix. Piracy is another option, but it comes with legal and moral risks, particularly for marginalised and financially struggling individuals.
However, libraries offer a unique solution. They are one of the few widespread anti-capitalist institutions in the contemporary US, where services are provided free to the public without any expectation of sales or profit. In World Literature Today, Linda Stack-Nelson notes that libraries are “the last place in every town and city [where] people can simply exist,” making them a critical resource for accessing culture and information. Despite the lack of accessible healthcare and welfare in the US, libraries continue to be funded, emphasising their importance in prioritising the common good.
Ultimately, as the streaming industry evolves, Netflix’s ban on password sharing may have significant consequences for consumers. While alternatives like open access models and piracy exist, they come with their own limitations and risks. Libraries provide an overlooked solution for accessing video entertainment, and their enduring existence underscores the importance of preserving public institutions that prioritise the common good.