Blame it on the Bots: States Act to Ban Ticket-Buying Software

Frustration and disappointment are often part of the ticket-buying process for people who want to see their favorite megastars live in concert.

Single ladies might have a better chance at getting into one of the upcoming Beyoncé concerts than couples and groups, and Adele fans might have more than lost love to cry about when they’re left empty-handed without a ticket to one of her shows this fall.

Tickets for a February Bruce Springsteen concert at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, N.Y., sold out just hours after going on sale, upsetting thousands of fans, according to the state’s attorney general. Springsteen tickets were immediately posted on resale sites at huge markups.

Blame it, at least partly, on bots, software that allows scalpers to quickly snag large quantities of tickets online. Bots may be a trivial concern compared to the working class woes that define classic Springsteen songs, and missing the opportunity to join a sardine pack of fans for an earsplitting sing-along could be considered a first-world problem. But bots are a headache that states and the federal government have grappled with for years.

About a dozen states have laws that ban ticket bots, and a bill that would prohibit the software was introduced in Congress last year. Meanwhile, online ticket sellers such as Ticketmaster continuously work to stay ahead of this technology.

In January, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said since taking office in 2011 he’s heard complaints from residents of his state about not being able to obtain affordable tickets. So, several years ago he decided to investigate the concert and sports ticket industry. The results were released in a 43-page report titled “Obstructed View: What’s Blocking New Yorkers from Getting Tickets.” 
“We think this report is going to open up the shadowy area of overcharging and enable us to take action both through voluntary conduct of companies and, hopefully, through legislative steps,” Schneiderman said at a press conference in January.

Ticketmaster estimated that “bots have been used to buy more than 60 percent of the most desirable tickets for some shows,” according to a May 2013 story in The New York Times. The estimate was repeated in the report by the New York Attorney General’s Office, which discovered through its own investigation that at least tens of thousands of tickets were being purchased by bots every year.

Third-party brokers resell the tickets on sites such as StubHub and TicketsNow at an average 49 percent above face value, and sometimes at more than 1,000 percent above face value, the report said.

Ticket scalping—whether it’s done online or on a street corner—is a complex issue, and scalping laws vary widely from state to state. In recent years, however, much emphasis has been placed on bots, the piece of the scalping puzzle that can give scalpers an unfair advantage online. 
In New York, it is illegal to use bots to bypass the security measures on ticket vendors’ websites. Currently, violators could face civil sanctions, but Schneiderman has suggested that the legislature act to impose criminal sanctions on bot users.

In April 2015, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that bans ticket bot software—joining 12 other states that prohibit ticket bots—and makes it a violation of the state Consumer Protection Act to sell software to circumvent, interfere with or evade any security measure or access-control system on a ticket seller’s website.

“Outlawing ticket bots will keep more fans’ hard-earned money in their pockets, instead of fattening the wallets of scalpers trying to game the system,” said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson in a news release.

California law prohibits the use of ticket bots and makes it a misdemeanor, punishable by up to six months in jail and fines of up to $2,500, according to a story published Sept. 23, 2013, in the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper reported that Ticketmaster supported the bill signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown in 2013 and issued a statement that called the legislation “an important step in combating nefarious scalping practices.”

StubHub emailed a statement regarding bot legislation: “The issue of bot technology on the primary ticket market clearly provides an unfair advantage in securing tickets over the average fan. StubHub has, and always will, continue to support legislation prohibiting the use of bots. In the states where bots are prohibited (California, Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia and Washington), the laws should strongly be enforced by the appropriate agencies and entities who abuse the law should be penalized.”

StubHub also referenced federal legislation that U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee introduced in February 2015. StubHub said the Better On-line Ticket Sales Act of 2014, known as the Bots Act, “would establish a federal framework prohibiting the use of bots in the United States. StubHub is committed to working with industry partners to build awareness around this issue.”

No federal law exists regarding ticket bot technology. The Bots Act would prohibit the sale or use of ticket bots; the bill calls the practice unfair and deceptive.

“I am pleased to be working on a bipartisan basis with the Tennessee delegation on this important legislation,” said Blackburn in a news release dated Feb. 4, 2015. “Scalpers have been taking advantage of computer hacking software (bots) to circumvent restrictions put in place by online ticketing agents for years. They purchase tickets in mass quantities and sell them at a considerably marked up rate, which hurts fans of live entertainment who get priced out of the market. The live entertainment industry goes to great lengths to build relationships with its fans and ensure that they will have access to shows.”

Blackburn joined U.S. Reps. Steve Cohen, Scott DesJarlais and Jim Cooper, all of Tennessee, to sponsor the Bots Act, which would allow for Federal Trade Commission enforcement, criminal sanctions and other actions against online scalpers.

Ticketmaster, which is owned by Live Nation Entertainment, continues to work on its bot-fighting skills. A white box appears on the screen after Ticketmaster users have selected tickets, with a statement that urges buyers to join the cause: “Help battle the bots!”

That’s as sci-fi as things get. A user simply has to check the box next to the sentence, “I’m not a robot.”

Behind the scenes, however, advanced technology looks for signs of humanity, such as the way the mouse moves on the screen, according to a story by The New York Times published Feb. 11, 2016.

Still, Joe Berchtold, chief operating officer of Live Nation Entertainment, told The New York Times that when Adele tickets went on sale about nine million people sought about 400,000 available tickets on Ticketmaster.

So, even if bots are taken out of the equation, other music fans will remain.