No computers need apply? Legislators look at opening up event tickets to real people

Several others have states have banned the use of "bots" to snap up blocks of tickets.
Crosscut archive image.

These days, software programs might be making it harder to get top tickets.

Several others have states have banned the use of "bots" to snap up blocks of tickets.

Want to buy tickets for a major show at one of Seattle's prime theaters or one of the state's big concert venues?

Lurking computers software could scarf up 40 percent of the tickets before you have a chance to go on the Internet to buy your own. The slang for that type of software is "bot," as in Internet robot or ticket robot. The principle is that this software can order tickets thousands of times faster than a human can do so with fingers.

"You don't know if you were outraced by a human or a machine," said Shannon Smith, an assistant Washington attorney general. "Bots are these little creepy crawlers that gobble up tickets," said Josh LaBelle, executive director of the Seattle Theatre Group, which includes the Neptune, Paramount and Moore theaters.

Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, has introduced a bill to outlaw the use of ticket-related "bots" in Washington to grab massive numbers of tickets, making them unavailable to ordinary customers or to contracted secondary sellers. The concept is to declare this as an unfair or deceptive practice under the Washington Consumer Protection Act.

Bots also have benign and legitimate purposes, and account for 56 percent of all traffic on the Internet, according to Wired magazine. The Wired story estimated roughly 20 percent of the bots on the Internet could be classified as "malicious," those bots could account for up to 80 percent of the traffic on some Web sites. In 2013, the Denver Post reported that sports and concert venues in Colorado were concerned about the problem.

On Wednesday, LaBelle told the state House Technology & Economic Development Committee that bot software targets roughly 30 percent of the Seattle area's theatrical shows — the most popular ones. The software collects up to 40 percent of the tickets for the big shows.

"They aim for the very hottest concerts that they know will be sold out," Van De Wege said. Smith of the Attorney General's office testified that this practice ultimately increases the prices of tickets that costumers can actually buy.

Regulating ticket bots is relatively uncharted territory. Thirteen states have laws similar to what Van De Wege has introduced, including Oregon and California. Smith said she didn't know how enforceable the laws have been. The Tennessean newspaper recently reported that a six-year-old state law has never been used in the county around Nashville, the heart of the state's largest metropolitan area.

"This is probably not the most perfect enforcement paradigm, but it moves the ball," Smith said.

There also are questions where the line is between a reasonable number of tickets and an excessive number.

In 2013, the New York Times wrote that Ticketmaster had filed a federal lawsuit in Los Angeles against 21 people, accusing them of using bots to buy up to 200,000 tickets a day prior to the tickets becoming available to the general public and then reselling the tickets at a profit. The lawsuit alleged that the practice violated Ticketmaster's sales terms, and damaged the corporation's reputation.

House Technology committee member Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, said, "The bottom line is that we want regular people ... to have a chance."

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8