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Swapping streams: 'Subscription services are supposed to be a shared commodity' | Technology


The cheapest subscriptions to Netflix, Stan and Spotify are about $10 a month. But people are paying much, much less than that. Many share the services with partners or friends. Some share with friends of friends. And others share with their housemate’s ex-partner’s family – who they have never actually met.

“We just never logged out,” says Kate. Her housemate’s ex signed in once with his family account on the sharehouse TV and that was it: free Netflix for the foreseeable future, all for the price of some dud movie recommendations. “He was really into action and really blokey content – not my cuppa at all. Luckily, no Adam Sandler recommendations ever came up,” she says.

Jane had a similar experience. She and her sister used her boyfriend’s friend’s girlfriend’s Netflix login for months – before word got around. “She was extremely pissed about it,” Jane says. “She felt betrayed and used.”

Jane didn’t mean any harm. She didn’t think it would matter at all. “I truly think that subscription services are supposed to be a shared commodity,” she says. “I use my sister’s Netflix, she uses my Stan, two friends use my Hayu, and I use my friend’s Disney+.

“I’ve handed out my Stan to so many people that my friend said to me, ‘Hey, we got our own Stan, thanks for letting us use yours for the past two years’, and I was like, ‘You use it?’”

If Seinfeld was still running in 2020, it would have an episode about subscription sharing. Everyone’s doing it, but no one can quite agree on the social norms. Do you need to be close with someone to share an account? Can that person pass the login on? Does it matter how big or profitable the service is? Can an ex keep using an account after a breakup? When do you add a new partner’s profile?

Jordan told me he still shares his Netflix and Stan accounts with his ex’s mum “because, as she puts it, ‘it’s not my fault you broke up. I should still get to use them.’ I couldn’t argue with that logic,” he says.

One woman told me she used her ex’s Foxtel account for 18 months after breaking up, before he stopped paying his bill: “He was always terrible with money. Ruining my life once again.” Another says she still shares Netflix with her ex-husband: “He uses it more than he sees his kids, whom we also ‘share’.”

It’s no mystery why this is happening: getting people to pay for online content has never been easy, especially younger generations who have grown up with either unprecedented access to free streaming and/or mass file-sharing. A 2018 survey from media research firm Magid found that 42% of Gen Z and 35% of millennials share passwords for streaming services, compared to 19% of Gen X and 13% of baby boomers.

One millennial told me she thinks of it in the same way “as when one person used to buy a magazine and then pass it on to like four other people to read”. But, for Kate, it’s always a considered decision. “I don’t feel as bad about companies like Netflix who pay barely any tax in Australia, but Stan (under Nine) is a bit different as it supports local content … I [also] don’t share my news subscription logins as journalism needs as much support as it can get.”

Jack shares Netflix, Spotify and Stan accounts with his girlfriend and her family, and Optus Sport with his girlfriend’s football coach. “I’m annoyed at the chopping off of content onto so many platforms, forcing you to get increasingly specific subs,” he says. “I don’t want to pay for a sub just for football.”

So, is this actually allowed? And are companies planning to do anything about it? Those are two very different questions.

Stan says that “you must keep your account details private and must not share these details”. Under its premium plan, you can watch on four screens at the same time. Netflix says that accounts “may not be shared with individuals beyond your household”. It maintains the right to “terminate or restrict your use” if you violate these terms of use. Both companies were approached for comment, but did not respond.

Netflix, historically, hasn’t been too worried about policing this rule. The company is large enough that subscription sharing hasn’t stopped their profits soaring, and they’ve even acknowledged its potential as a tool to build more subscribers in the long term. But recently, that tune has changed.

In October 2019, the chief product officer, Greg Peters, said Netflix is monitoring the situation and looking for “consumer-friendly ways to push on the edges of [it]”. This was around the same time that Spotify announced a crackdown on family plan users, to ensure they shared a home address. It was also a few weeks before the launch of rival streaming giant Disney+.

With increased competition, some media commentators think it’s just a matter of time before investors pressure companies to chase this “missing revenue”. But there’s no guarantee it would result in more cash.

“I probably wouldn’t pay for Optus myself, if I got kicked off,” Jack says. “I’d just watch a lot less football highlights.”

All names have been changed

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