It would seem to be a victimless crime, and one that college students perpetrate every day. Let’s say you want to watch HBO GO, or TBS, or WatchABC. All you have to do is find someone who has access to the streaming rights for those shows and login using their user ID. Young people away at college do this with reckless abandon, often ignoring college-provided cable TV to watch premium content provided by their parents’ cable or satellite provider. There’s practically no way for content providers to stop it… some put a limit on the number of registered devices but that doesn’t really do much. It’s so common that we don’t even think about it.
And yet, it’s both wrong and illegal. First of all it’s very unlikely that jackbooted thugs are going to break down your door and wrest your iPad from your hands so they can check for the presence of an improperly-obtained TBS authentication. That… isn’t going to happen. But just because you won’t get caught, does that mean it’s ok? It’s against the terms of service agreements that we all ignore even though we click that we’ve read and understood them. It’s potentially depriving those companies of revenue even though in real life, you would probably just find a different way to pirate that same content if you couldn’t do it by using someone else’s login.
At its heart, this is the same sort of electronic piracy that’s been part of the computing landscape since the beginning. There is so much content out there and if it’s not easily shareable yet, it’s probably just a matter of time before someone figures out how to crack it. Fifteen years ago, piracy nearly sank the music industry, which today is healthier than ever. How did it survive? By understanding that if you charge a fair amount for content, people won’t bother stealing it. Apple, which was at one time the king of encrypted music, removed encryption from all its music and actually made more money by doing it. Their prices were fair and while music piracy is still there, it’s obvious that there’s enough money going through the system to keep everyone happy.
So what’s to be done about all the people using streaming service logins that aren’t theirs? The first step is to see how HBO’s streaming-only subscription goes. If it’s reasonably priced and appealing, then it could move millions (yes millions) of users away from using mommy and daddy’s HBO GO login to paying for their own. On the other hand if it fails to make a dent then that’s a big problem.
Ideally, the goal would be to have all content either reasonably priced or free with advertiser support, but that’s been really hard to do historically. There’s more of an understanding today that at some level content isn’t really free, but there have been so many people who have become so accustomed to using someone else’s login that it may take a long time to really change attitudes.
There’s also the matter of how much you would pay. A cable or satellite company traditionally pays under one dollar per month per subscriber (usually a lot less) for channels like TBS, CNN, and other “basic cable” channels. How much would you pay, and how much would those companies want to charge? If a company like Turner offered you TBS, CNN, TNT, and all their other streams for $2/month, would you do it? What about $10/month? It’s hard to know what a fair charge is.
One thing is sure, though… this is something that needs to be straightened out. Sooner or later these college students will have kids of their own, and then where will they get their HBO?