Justin Timberlake concert sold out? Blame ticket bots

To free up tickets for concerts and sporting events, California is the latest state to ban ticket bot programs.

Buying a concert ticket online isn’t easy these days.

Imagine you're a Justin Timberlake fan and he's coming to your town. You set an alarm so that as soon as tickets go on sale, you log in to Ticketmaster -- with dreams of dancing in the aisles to your favorite JT tune -- only to find out tickets are already sold out.

You could turn to a site like StubHub and get seats, but those tickets might cost three times the face value.

It’s a story that California State Assemblyman Richard Pan, a Democrat from Sacramento, has heard many times.

"You know when the tickets are going on sale, and you log on a minute later and they're all gone. That’s extremely frustrating," Pan says.

Pan authored a bill banning the use of automated ticket bot programs in California. Bots digitally jump to the front of the line and scoop up all the tickets before regular fans have a shot at buying any.

Ticket bots are active across the country, and about a dozen states have laws trying to limit their abuse.

Smith College economics professor Andrew Zimbalist says bot programs are sophisticated. And, a ticket bot doesn’t just immediately re-sell the tickets. Instead, it holds on to tickets for awhile to maximize value.

"It can sell those tickets at its leisure," Zimbalist says. "If it tried to sell all of the tickets at once it might drive the price down. But, if it sells them slowly over time, it can maintain a higher price."

There’s a question as to whether ticket bot laws can actually help consumers, according to Chris Grimm of Fan Freedom, a national organization that advocates for ticket buyers. "The big problem with the law is that it doesn’t really have any way for the authorities to really get the information that they need to prosecute folks," Grimm says. 

Grimm thinks the law is a step in the right direction, but he doubts it will result in many criminal charges.

"We would have liked to have seen a requirement that ticket-sellers have to report evidence of bot use to the proper authorities, so they can go after and prosecute these bad actors," Grimm says.

Using ticket bots is now a misdemeanor in California. Ticketmaster and StubHub both supported the law, but in the battle of man versus machine, it’s likely the bots will continue evolving. And states will have to change laws to keep up.

About the author

Katie Orr is the state government reporter for Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, CA.

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