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Battling the 'bots: Congress aims at ticket scalpers

In the thick of this summer’s sports and concert season, Congress has begun to act on long-awaited legislation to regulate robotic software that is cheating many Americans out of the most popular tickets.

A year-and-a-half-long effort by GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York will continue eking its way through the committee process this month. While there are only a handful of weeks remaining for legislation during this election year, this proposed law is one of the few that appears to have strong bipartisan, bicameral support.

The Better Online Ticket Sales Act – the name of Blackburn’s version – would replace an incomplete patchwork of state-level laws with federal regulation branding robotic software as an “unfair and deceptive trade practice” and therefore subject to oversight by the Federal Trade Commission. Would-be customers could also sue in federal court for damages.

Blackburn said in a statement her bill would “end these anti-consumer tactics and level the online ticket playing field for fans of live entertainment.”

“Scalpers have been taking advantage of computer hacking software to circumvent restrictions put in place by online ticketing agents for years,” she said. “They purchase tickets in mass quantities and sell them at a drastically inflated rate, which unfairly prices most fans of live entertainment out of the market. The entertainers go to great lengths to build relationships with their fans and ensure that they will have access to shows, but scalpers are decimating this experience.”

At issue is the nature of the software to snap up tickets on Web sites such as Ticketmaster or StubHub and then resell them at substantial markups near-instantaneously, before members of the public can reach them. While some sites require customers to type in a phrase or check a box, the scalping software can often still hack the system.

Blackburn’s bill passed the House Commerce Committee’s Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee last month on a voice vote – a relative rarity on Capitol Hill this year. It is co-sponsored by nine Republicans and eight Democrats, another sign of strong support.

Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert industry news service Pollstar, told AMI Newswire his company has no formal position on the legislation. But he acknowledged the need for some kind of remedy.

“The biggest problem is the artists and promoters’ frustration with their inability to control the ticket inventory,” he said. “Many have given up the fight and cooperate with the brokers.”

“Scalpers used to be viewed as the scum of the earth, but over the last decade the primary and secondary ticket markets have started to merge and everyone now just wants a piece of those extra dollars.”

A Blackburn spokeswoman said the bill is expected to be voted on by the full Commerce Committee within the next two weeks. Schumer’s legislation is still awaiting introduction in the Senate, but he championed similar legislation last year.

Rep. Paul Tonko, a Democrat from New York, has signed on as Blackburn’s lead co-sponsor. He said New York is already cracking down on the situation at the state level.

“People work hard and save money to see a performance or a game, and they shouldn’t be prohibited from buying a ticket online because a computer program beats them to the punch,” he said. “It’s not right. This legislation puts a stop to this unseemly practice at its root, prohibiting use or sale of bot software and empowering consumers to fight back against price manipulators in the ticket industry.”

Blackburn’s bill isn’t the only anti-scalping legislation in the House. Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell of New Jersey is also pitching a bill that in addition to banning robotic software would require ticketing companies to disclose how many tickets are actually available to the public – a critical piece of information, he said, because sometimes large swaths of tickets are being withheld from regular paying customers and made available instead to specialized customers such as fan club members.

Several members of Congress have publicly complained in Washington this year that red-hot tickets, such as Taylor Swift’s tour or the play “Hamilton,” have sold out before they can be bought for their children – making a crackdown more personally appealing this summer than when Blackburn first introduced the idea last year.