Communications and Media

Web Entertainment Pirates Hit a Road Block

"You should share your things!" Parents and teachers have used this mantra as a hammer for eons. As a general rule, it's the right thing to do, too. It's a lesson we carry with us our entire lives.

Sometimes, sharing is the absolute wrong thing to do, and it may lead to criminal charges.

Theft by Sharing

In 2011, Tennessee became the first state to make it a crime to share your subscription for web-entertainment services, such as Rhapsody and Netflix. The new law was signed by the governor in late May and goes into effect July 1.

How the Law Works

The new law simply adds to Tennessee's existing law making it a crime to take, or let others take, various services without paying for them. Eating in restaurant and not paying the bill, or hijacking cable TV transmissions are good examples.

Practically every state has a similar law; the crime is typically called theft of services.

So, in Tennessee, you may face criminal charges by using someone else's login and ID to gain access to web-based services, or by letting someone else access your account.

Who's the Target

By most accounts, the law targets individuals and groups who steal users' passwords and IDs and then sell them to other people. However, anyone could be prosecuted.

As a practical matter, you're probably safe in letting a family member use your credentials. You may face legal problems if you give your subscription information to everyone who lives on your street or in your apartment building.

Penalties for Breaking the Law

The punishment for violating the law depends on the value of the services or property taken. For example, when:

  • $500 or less is stolen, it's a misdemeanor, with a punishment of up to one year in jail, a fine of up to $2,500 or both
  • The value is between $501 and $999, it's a felony punishable by up to 6 years in prison, a fine of up to $3,000 or both
  • $60,000 or more is involved, it's a felony punishable by 8 to 30 years in prison, a fine of up to $25,000 or both

Who Wanted the Law?

A major player in the push for web-entertainment theft law was the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the same group that squashed music piracy through illegal downloading and file sharing. Music sites like Rhapsody make millions of dollars each year - and lose millions more when non-customers get access to the site.

Why Tennessee? It's the country music capital of the world, and the music industry pays a lot of tax money to the state. It's no wonder the law sailed through the state legislature and across the governor's desk.

The Wave of the Future

The internet is everywhere and is fast becoming the source of choice for all sorts of entertainment - movies, music, TV shows. States like Tennessee that make money from taxes and fees from e-based businesses and industries are almost certain to follow Tennessee's lead and pass similar laws.

Subscription or pay-as-you-go web sites and services may take notice, too. It's common for these types of businesses to make it a condition of membership that you don't share your credentials with non-customers. Or they limit the number of devices you can run their software, programs or services. In other words, follow the rules or lose your privileges.

Businesses and sites without a policies or rules like this might - and should - look into it.

In the meantime, it's a good idea to stop using someone else's password and letting others use yours - in Tennessee, at least.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • How can web subscription service know if I'm letting someone else use my ID and password?
  • Can I get into any trouble for telling a web subscription service about abuse or misuse of IDs and passwords?
  • Does Tennessee's law apply to online magazine subscriptions? Is a magazine a "service?"
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