The third season of HBO’s fantasy-drama series “Game of Thrones” was arguably the hottest and most-talked about television event of the year. Nobody wanted to be left out, but in an increasingly cord-cut world, comparatively few people have cable subscriptions to HBO, the only channel that broadcasts “Game of Thrones.” HBO does have a video streaming service, HBO Go, but you still need a cable subscription to access it.
The restricted access for HBO programming led “Game of Thrones” to break piracy records and become the most downloaded television show of 2012. “Game of Thrones” was illegally downloaded at a rate of 3 million times per episode.
For users not comfortable with piracy, another option has grown increasingly popular among “Game of Thrones” fans -- sharing HBO account information. In a recent New York Times article No TV? No Subscription? No Problem?, Jenna Wortham noted how she used, “the information of a guy in New Jersey that I had once met in a Mexican restaurant.” Dave Their of Forbes admitted that he used his sister’s boyfriend’s father’s account in exchange for his Netflix information. College Humor even made a video mocking the whole phenomenon, saying HBO Go sounds “illogical” and that sharing passwords is “basically stealing.”
Actually, sharing passwords is stealing under the current Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which makes it a misdemeanor with a maximum one-year prison sentence to “obtain without authorization information from a protected computer.” It is also a violation of the Digital Millennium Copy Act because it is knowingly circumventing a protection measure set up to prevent someone from watching content like “Game of Thrones” without paying. Forbes points out that a crafty prosecutor could also claim that using an HBO Go password without paying is a form of identity theft.
If the government proved that the information stolen reached $5,000, someone could potentially face a felony with a sentence of multiple years in prison. It may be hard to argue that even all three seasons of “Game of Thrones” are worth $5,000, but keep in mind that prosecutors made this claim when Aaron Swartz downloaded academic papers with far less commercial value than “Game of Thrones.”
If you used someone else’s HBO Go password to watch last night’s season finale of “Game of Thrones,” you probably don’t need to worry about lawyers coming knocking. HBO hasn’t expressed any interest in preventing password sharing. For starters, they don’t have much of an ability to police it. Only 6.5 million of HBO’s 30 million subscribers have signed up for HBO Go, so it isn’t really damaging their business model.
So although password sharing is a violation of HBO Go’s terms of service and is therefore a criminal activity, you are probably safe to use your sister’s boyfriend’s dad’s password to watch “Game of Thrones.” For now.