That robot took my theatre ticket!

The UK’s Digital Economy Act 2017 is to be amended by the Breaching Limits on Ticket Sales Regulations, which will criminalise use of internet bots to bypass limits on ticket purchases set by event organisers. 

In practice, the problem is not necessarily how the tickets are purchased – by bots or otherwise – but rather, the crazy prices fans are forced to pay on the secondary market.

When tickets first go on sale for an event, they hit the primary market. If somebody resells their ticket, they do so on the secondary market. This secondary market is estimated to be worth more than £1bn ($1.4b) per year in the UK alone. When resales are done on a large scale or for considerable profit, it’s known as “touting” or “scalping”.

Touting in the digital age.  “Bots” are software applications that run automated tasks (scripts) over the internet, used for years to quickly buy up thousands of tickets at lightening speed. By way of example, American company Prestige Entertainment is alleged to have bought over 300,000 tickets in a two-year period. This included 30,000 Hamilton Tickets and, in another instance, bought over 1,000 tickets to a U2 concert in less than one minute (see Ticketmaster v Prestige Entertainment, case 2:2017cv07232).

High and dry.  When ticket supply is drastically limited, the bot masters (“power sellers”) can resell the bot-obtained tickets to fans at high mark-ups. Tickets for Radiohead’s 2016 show had a face value of £65, but were placed on Viagogo for £3,934. A ticket for Adele’s concert in London was listed on Get Me In! for an eye-watering £24,840.

Technavio’s Global Ticket Market 2017–2021 reveals the annual growth rate of the live music ticketing sector will average 7% from 2016 to 2021, reaching a value of £18b ($24b) in 2021.

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photo: Billboard

Are ticket buying bots illegal?  Using bots to purchase tickets is already a crime in the United States, under the Better Online Ticket Sales (“BOTS”) Act of 2016. Signed under the Obama administration, the law prohibits “circumvention of control measures used by internet ticket sellers to ensure equitable consumer access to tickets for certain events.”

In the United Kingdom it is illegal to re-sell tickets to Premiership football matches without permission (see s. 166 CJPOA 1994), and it was illegal to re-sell tickets to 2012 Olympic Games events. But there is no legal restriction against reselling tickets for live music or theatre events.

There are however several laws aimed at protecting consumers from unfair ticketing practices, including the Consumer Rights Act 2015, the Consumer Contracts Regulations 2013, and the Computer Misuse Act 1990. When enforced, the regulations are designed to help protect fans and ensure secondary ticketing websites operate with greater transparency: but in practice, neither Government nor police agencies take action against touters.

Breaching Limits on Ticket Sales Regulations.  The new regulations will create a criminal offence when tickets to recreational, sporting or cultural events in the UK are bought using a “process” over an electronic service or network, when the amount of tickets that can be purchased by one individual is limited by the venue.

This is proposed as a summary offence (i.e. no jail time) with an unlimited fine in England in Wales. In Scotland, the fine is capped at £50,000. It is yet to be determined if the offence will apply to the laws of Northern Ireland.

We’re determined to make sure 2018 is the year we help real fans get the chance to see their favourite music and sports stars at a fair price.
—Matt Hancock, Minister for Digital and Culture Creative Industries

Image result for ticketmaster

The robot reality.  Consumers are encouraged to notify the police and the event organiser of any suspicious activity, but it remains to be seen how the new regulations will actually be enforced. In practice, the problem is not necessarily how the tickets are purchased – by bots or otherwise – but rather, the exorbitant (extortionate) prices fans are forced to pay on the secondary market.

In the meanwhile, some private sector companies are pairing up with events management and artists to stem the problem:

  • Dutch startup Guaranteed Unique Ticketing System uses blockchain technology to make reselling tickets at higher prices impossible
  • British firm DICE uses mobile phones to lock tickets to user accounts
  • Artists including Adele and Ed Sheeran partner with sites such as Twickets.co.uk, which prohibits the resale of tickets at a profit
  • FanFair Alliance is a campaign supported by a variety of music managers, artists and trade bodies in the creative industries
  • Ticketmaster is set to launch its Verified Fan anti-scalping programme in the UK

The regulations are published in draft form here.

Header photo from Songkick.

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