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Published: Sep 21, 2015 7 min read
Host Andy Samberg takes the stage at the 67th Primetime Emmy Awards on September 20, 2015.
Lucy Nicholson—Reuters

On Sunday night, Emmys host Andy Samberg gave out a functional HBO Now username and password ( and ‘password1’). They were indeed legitimate, and for a little while at least, the account information worked.

What, beyond getting a few laughs and giving the Emmys some extra buzz, was Samberg thinking? He explained that HBO CEO Richard Pepler has said that he doesn't mind that people share their log-ins to watching HBO shows online. “It’s not that we’re unmindful of it, it just has no impact on the business,” Pepler said at a 2014 event sponsored by BuzzFeed. In fact, the practice of sharing usernames and passwords serves as a “terrific marketing vehicle for the next generation of viewers,” he said.

On multiple occasions, Pepler has reiterated some variety of the idea that HBO's business model is all about "building addicts," meaning folks who take the concept of "must-see TV" to an entirely new level. And much in the same way that a drug dealer builds up his clientele by giving away product samples for free (to extend Pepler's rather uncomfortable analogy), or how online retail startups do the same with the "freemium" model, HBO works on the premise that the surest way to get the largest number of people hooked—and turned into paying customers—is by giving them a free taste. That's why most TV pay packages give new subscribers 30 days of premium channels like HBO and Showtime for free. HBO Now, the $15-per-month online subscription service that doesn't require a pay TV package, has a 30-day free trial period too, as does Amazon Prime, Hulu, Netflix, and other subscription services.

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But back to sharing passwords for online accounts: Is it allowed? Well, as you might guess, sharing accounts at the level suggested by Samberg is frowned upon, to put it mildly. However, services like HBO Now are reluctant to crack down on sharing, and are sometimes a bit vague about what is and isn't OK, for a variety of reasons, including the difficulty of enforcement and the idea it may be unwise to anger individuals who could be paying customers in the future.

On the one hand, Variety points out that Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, HBO Now, and other Internet video-subscription services will lose as much as $500 million in 2015 due to illicit password sharing. On the other, the practice appears to be quite commonplace: In a recent Consumer Reports survey, 46% of American adults said they shared log-ins for streaming media services with people who were not part of the same household—which is generally against the rules.

So what exactly are the rules? Here are the official policies from the major players in the streaming video space, bearing in mind that, as mentioned above, for the time being at least some of these services won't bother cracking down on usage even if they knew how to do it.

Amazon Prime
In August, Amazon tightened the rules for Prime memberships a little. The official policy now states that a standard Prime subscription is limited to two adults and up to four children living in the same household. Only the adults get their own distinct log-ins, though; the kids must log in with one of the adult's credentials. A maximum of two videos can be streamed (via two different devices) at the same time using the same account. Once logged in, subscribers can use whatever credit or debit cards are associated with Prime payment, so anyone with access to your account can buy movies, books, and (because this is Amazon) almost anything under the sun with the card. Prime members can ship orders to any address they want too, of course.

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An HBO Now subscription is supposed to be limited to a "household." Does that include kids who are away at college? A grandmother who's living in an apartment attached to the main house? HBO is vague about this kind of nitty-gritty, perhaps intentionally so. It's also vague about how many people can use the service at the same time, stating rather unspecifically, "Members of your household can sign in to HBO NOW on multiple devices at the same time and watch videos concurrently, but the number of videos you can stream at any given time is limited for security reasons." You're not supposed to share log-in information with people who are not part of your "household," but as stated above, HBO has mixed feelings about the issue and is highly unlikely to crack down on password sharing.

A Hulu account allows only one video to be streamed at a time, creating a natural limit to how much the account can be shared. You can activate as many devices as you want for usage with the account, but again, only a single video can be streamed at any given time.

"The number of devices that may be allowed to instantly watch simultaneously will depend on your membership plan," Netflix explains. The standard $8.99 monthly subscription allows up to two streams at a time in HD, while the low-end SD streaming option costs $7.99 for only one stream on a device at any moment. The $11.99 membership grants the streaming of up to four videos on four separate devices at the same time. The latter has been referred to as a "family plan," but there is no official requirement that users sharing the account be part of the same blood line. Even so, Netflix CEO Reid Hastings has said that there are limits on what kind of sharing is OK. When asked about the issue at an earnings call, he said, "If you mean, ‘Hey, I got my password from my boyfriend’s uncle,’ then that’s not what we would consider appropriate.” It is unclear if or how the company would stop people from illicitly using the same password, however.