By Sagar Jethani
We are at our wits’ end how to keep tickets out of the hands of scalpers…
So lamented Charles Dickens at the start of his US book tour in 1867. Ticket scalpers had followed his entourage from city to city, paying men to stand in line and purchase as many tickets as possible for the purpose of selling them later at inflated prices.
Nearly 150 years later, the situation hasn’t fundamentally changed. Scalpers just use different tools to corner the market. Rather than paying people to stand in line for tickets, scalpers use sophisticated code called ticket bots to hammer a website the instant tickets become available. After gobbling up the best seats at face value, scalpers turn around and resell them at inflated prices on the secondary market. According to a report issued earlier this year by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, consumers are left with between 12 and 46 percent of tickets for any given live performance once the bots have taken their share.
But things may be about to change.
A bill designed to stop the use of ticket bots cleared the House of Representatives this month and cleared the Senate Commerce Committee with unanimous approval just this morning. The Better Online Ticket Sales (BOTS) Act, classifies the use of ticket bots as an “unfair and deceptive act.” subject to penalties. In this era of political polarization, it is noteworthy that the bill originated as a bipartisan measure, sponsored by Reps. Marsha Blackburn (R) and Paul Tonko (D).
“For years, ticket scalpers have been taking advantage of computer-hacking software to overwhelm online ticketing websites with requests,” said Rep. Blackburn. “These anti-consumer tactics have no place in our society, and it’s time we take action to protect fans of live entertainment.”
Over in the Senate, Democratic Senator Bill Nelson voiced similar frustration when speaking with Hamilton‘s lead producer on Tuesday:
“I did not get to go see ‘Hamilton.’ The reason I didn’t go: I did not want to pay $800 a ticket. At the time that I tried, all the tickets had been bought up. This is a rigged market benefiting some greedy speculators.”
Apparently Democrats and Republicans have found something they can agree on.
Several states have already passed laws against the use of ticket bots, but nobody has been convicted yet due to uncertainties over which agency is responsible for enforcement. If the BOTS Act passes, that ambiguity ends: violators would be punishable by the Federal Trade Commission.
It’s true that Blackburn’s original language called for the use of ticket bots to be classified as a federal crime punishable by substantial fines and imprisonment. And while those provisions were stripped from the bill before it cleared the House earlier this month, the version currently making its way through the Senate still has teeth. Operating a ticket bot would be classified as a civil offense and punishable by the FTC. Consumers could also sue those convicted of using bots for damages if it prevents consumers from buying good seats.
If the bill clears the Senate, it goes to the President for his signature. Given its strong bipartisan support, it seems likely President Obama will sign it into law. We’ll see then whether the BOTS Act goes far enough by how aggressively the FTC goes after those who continue to gain an unfair advantage by using bots.
Writing in The New York Times earlier this year, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda explained what a world free of tickets bots would mean:
“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.”