States Work to Keep Bots from Stealing Live Entertainment Tickets

On Sunday, June 12, Broadway stars will gather for theater’s biggest night, the Tony Awards. Aired live, viewers across the country will get their chance to see and hear the cast of the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.”

But ticket bots have made it difficult for Broadway fans, especially fans of the ultra popular show about one of the nation’s founding fathers, to see shows in person; and the same applies for concerts and sporting events. State leaders are trying to fix the problem while urging fans to be careful about purchasing from third-party sellers.

At least a dozen states have laws that ban ticket bots, software that allows scalpers to quickly snag large quantities of tickets online. In addition, a bill that would prohibit the software was introduced in Congress last year.

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.

“Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote an op-ed about ticket bots for The New York Times, published on June 7, in which he referenced Schneiderman’s report and his findings.

Miranda wrote, “I want the thousands of tickets for shows, concerts and sporting events that are now purchased by bots and resold at higher prices to go into the general market so that you have a chance to get them. I want theatergoers to be able to purchase tickets at face value at our box office and our website, rather than on a resale platform. And if you do go to a resale platform for tickets, I want the markup you must pay to be clearly displayed.

“Most of all, I want you to be there when the curtain goes up. You shouldn’t have to fight robots just to see something you love.”

Third-party brokers resell 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, Schneiderman’s 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 that 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.

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.