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Ticket ‘bot’ bill stalled over setting severity of penalties

ALBANY — A bill that would crack down on ticket “bots” — computerized programs that scarf up the hottest tickets for Broadway and sports events so resellers can jack up the prices — is stalled over how severe to make the penalties and whether to force companies to publish “face value” prices, officials say.

Bots already are illegal under state law. But the applicable fines are too small to deter companies, which can make lucrative profits off reselling.

At issue is whether to make the crime a felony, which could trigger jail time for offenders, or just a misdemeanor. The Republican-led Senate favors the tougher penalty and passed a bill to that effect last month. It also contains a provision that sellers say could force them to print a ticket’s “face value,” which they oppose.

In the Democrat-dominated Assembly, it’s still being debated.

Assemb. Marco Crespo (D-Bronx), sponsor of the bill in that house, said he’s “fairly confident” the two houses can reach agreement on a new law before the State Legislature adjourns for 2016 this week. But he acknowledged some of his colleagues are resisting making the crime a felony.

“There’s got to be more than money” to deter this form of electronic ticket scalping, Crespo said, “because the money doesn’t mean anything to these companies when you’re making millions” of dollars.

By using automated software called “bots,” third-party ticket sellers can snatch large numbers of tickets for popular shows in a matter of minutes.

For example, a single broker purchased 1,102 tickets to a U2 show in a single minute, according to a report by Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman. Another scooped up 522 tickets in five minutes for a One Direction concert in 2013. Regular fans can’t compete with bots and often wind up having to go through brokers to get tickets at marked-up prices.

“Ticketing, to put it bluntly, is a fixed game,” Schneiderman said. In April, he reached a settlement that forced six companies to pay $2.7 million in penalties and end bot techniques.

Elevating the issue, Lin-Manuel Miranda, star of the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” penned an op-ed recently in The New York Times headlined “Stop the Bots from Killing Broadway.” He wrote: “You shouldn’t have to fight robots just to see something you love.”

“It really isn’t a free market,” said Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island), who sponsored the bill making the use of bots a felony. “People back home are saying this all the time: ‘I could never get through. All the tickets were gone in 30 minutes. How’d that happen?’ ”

Lanza said his bill, if approved, would give New York one of the strongest anti-bot bills in the nation.

Sen. Daniel Squadron (D-Brooklyn), one of the most outspoken lawmakers on ticket scalping, called Lanza’s proposal a “great bill” that would “improve ticket laws” and “really improve things for fans.”

Separately, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill in May that extended the current ticket regulations until June 2017. But he warned he wouldn’t sign another extension unless key issues were tackled — especially bots.

StubHub, which is now part of the eBay empire, doesn’t oppose a crackdown on bots; in fact, it favors stronger penalties, a spokeswoman said. But it is balking at the face-value disclosure mandate.

“At this time, we believe the legislation should only contain language on bots,” spokeswoman Johnna Hoff said in an email, “and we object to additional provisions until all stakeholders can work collectively with policy makers to discuss a substantive and comprehensive piece of legislation that addresses issues in both the primary and secondary ticket markets.”

Ticketmaster representatives didn’t immediately comment.

Michael Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx), acknowledged that some Democrats have “concerns” about the penalties. Crespo said some believe the problem can be “addressed through existing laws” rather than creating a new one.

“I’m fairly confident we’ll have something before we leave,” Crespo said.

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