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Battling 'bots' that gobble up concert tickets an enforcement headache

The Liberal government said last year that it would look at tackling ticket-reselling bots after an outcry from fans who were shut out of buying tickets to the Tragically Hip’s farewell tour.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

As audiences for live music, sports, theatre and other events grasp with resellers taking advantage of ticket-buying's digital transition, Ontario has opened consultations to refresh legislation to address the problem.

Ticketing is now a digital-first industry, but websites such as Ticketmaster have increasingly become the target of "bot" technology that rapidly buys up huge quantities of tickets and resellers that put them back on the market at enormous markups. Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi announced Tuesday that the province would seek guidance from the public and ticketing industry to make ticket-buying more accessible, affordable and transparent, with better legal enforcement.

The growing practice became a major public pain point this past summer during a blockbuster Tragically Hip tour in the wake of frontman Gord Downie's cancer announcement, prompting fan outcry over the ethics of allowing resale markets to gouge fans. But a review of ticket laws and subsequent legal changes would not likely be a cure-all for event-goers, who would continue to battle what has become a murky, globalized market.

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As good as it looks for fans, "legislation can't keep up with technology, and the resellers are highly motivated because they can make a very large amount of money," says Catherine Moore, an adjunct professor of music technology at the University of Toronto. "It's classic supply and demand driving prices to unlimited heights."

The global secondary ticket industry has been reported as worth more than $8-billion (U.S.).

The combination of high automation and off-shore operations can make bulk purchasers and resellers difficult to wrangle, Prof. Moore says.

Pascal Courty, an economics professor at the University of Victoria who studies ticket resale markets, says that the industry "has to change, and it has to come from self-regulation." Primary ticket vendors like Ticketmaster, he says, should become more transparent with ticket prices and availability. While governments can demand transparency and design laws against bots, Prof. Courty believes creating a set of industry best practices set around third-party auditing would be beneficial for both artists and fans.

It's not just bots that gobble up tickets – many venues hold a large number of tickets on behalf of the promoter and industry colleagues, and quiet, exclusive ticket presales can consume more seats.

The public is rarely sure exactly how much capacity remains in a venue by the time they're given a chance to buy tickets. "Part of this tension can be solved by audits," Prof. Courty said.

Artist-led audits are becoming increasingly prevalent. Country star Eric Church, for example, recently cancelled 25,000 tour tickets and put them back for sale after determining they were being sold by scalpers.

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In an interview, Mr. Naqvi said that enforcing legislation around ticket sales and resales would certainly be difficult, and that his focus was on "practical solutions." He declined to provide examples pending the consultation's results, but said that options included routine check-ins for anti-scalping technology investment and partnerships with other large entertainment hubs such as New York.

This past year, the New York Attorney-General's office found that only 46 per cent of tickets for popular concerts were reserved for the public and that tickets on resale markets had, on average, a 49-per-cent markup.

Entertainment lawyer Miro Oballa said legislation "sends a clear signal about the government's position," which is positive, but that governments can have difficulty with enforcement given ticketing's many stakeholders.

Laws around scalping are inconsistent across jurisdictions: Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, for example, have varying laws dealing with ticket resales and mass-purchase bot software. Alberta repealed scalping-related legislation in 2009.

Ontario's Ticket Speculation Act was modified in 2015, allowing for ticket resale if they're verified by the vendor or if there's a money-back guarantee.

StubHub is among the best-known ticket resale marketplaces.

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While Laura Dooley, its senior manager of government relations, says StubHub does not get involved with who lists tickets and sets prices – a position that frustrates many in the music industry – she believes revised legislation will be effective in balancing the marketplace.

"Bots provide an unfair advantage to people that are using them, over the average fan," she said.

In a statement, a Ticketmaster spokesperson wrote that after investing "millions" into bot prevention, "this is something that cannot be solved through technology alone."

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About the Author

Josh O’Kane is a reporter with The Globe and Mail's Report on Business. Since joining the paper in 2011, he has told stories from New Brunswick to Nairobi. More

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