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"Hamilton" And StubHub Duel Over Ticket Bots

The Senate is considering a bill that would crack down on digital scalpers, but an anti-bot crusade could have unintended consequences.

[Photo: courtesy of Pixabay]

I guess even ticket bots have the right to an attorney.

Amid growing calls for Congress to crack down on the scourge of digital scalping, the top lawyer for StubHub today mounted a careful defense of ticket bot technology, stating that similar software underlies much of the internet’s crucial infrastructure and could be threatened by broad regulatory action that lacks technological specifics.

"Not all bots are malicious," Tod Cohen, StubHub’s general counsel, told lawmakers during a Senate subcommittee hearing this afternoon. "Overwhelmingly, most bots perform a number of functions that are critical to the internet. Bots are used by nearly every portion of the internet, including search engines, e-commerce sites, news, and weather services as well as nearly every other internet functionality."

The hearing focused on pending legislation that would make the use of ticket bot software an "unfair and deceptive act" subject to penalties by the Federal Trade Commission. The "Better Online Ticket Sales Act" passed the House late Monday and is now heading to the Senate.

At the hearing today, a number of senators bemoaned the near-impossibility of scoring face-value tickets for many live events because of bots. The widely used software allows scalpers to scoop up blocks of tickets the moment they become available and then resell them at enormous markups. The problem gained wider attention in June when Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote an op-ed in The New York Times calling on state lawmakers to "stop the bots from killing Broadway."

Miranda’s smash hip-hop musical about the life of Alexander Hamilton regularly sells for upwards of $1,000 a seat on secondary ticket markets. While some might see that as a necessary byproduct of the capitalistic system established by Hamilton himself, the show’s producer, Jeffrey Seller, disagrees.

"Bots are computerized cheaters," Seller said at the hearing. "The people who employ bots use sophisticated software that cuts the line, paralyzes the system, and holds and purchases every available seat before a human consumer has a chance. They remove the notion of a level playing field from the electronic system, which was designed to help consumers purchase tickets with ease."

StubHub's Cohen acknowledged that the misuse of bot software has harmed the ticket-buying public, but he said they are only one component to the problem and urged a more comprehensive dialogue with other stakeholders, including Ticketmaster.

Not surprisingly, this afternoon’s hearing was rife with Hamilton references. A number of attendees joked about being in the "room where it happens," when referring to the legislative process. Two senators even suggested that Sen. Corey Booker, D-N.J., sing or rap his responses. Sadly, Mr. Booker did not break out in song.

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