Silicon Valley’s answer to Charles Ponzi may be called StubHub or its parent company Viagogo. I’m sure you’ve run into the StubHub grift. A band releases tickets for a show, the bots descend and having grabbed the best seats turns to StubHub and its ilk to resell the ill-gotten tickets at ever higher prices. Everyone denies they did anything wrong, they had no idea where their tickets were coming from. Instead of being prosecuted for wire fraud and other bad juju, these ticket scalpers allow reselling of botted tickets on a grand scale. All the while decrying bots as an illegal practice while leaving out the “but we make money together” part. See Better Online Ticket Sales Act (“the BOTS Act”), 15 U.S.C. § 45c.
However vile is this grift, it’s kind of an old story. The only thing that’s breaking news about a Ponzi scheme is not the ghost of Charles Ponzi. Rather, its when smart people–you know, your betters–fall for it yet again. But StubHub revealed yesterday in the Georgia Legislature that they actually thought they would put one over on a wiley old committee chairman who just didn’t buy the huge helping of Smarm by the Bay when the Silicon Valley lobbyists oiled their way into the Georgia House of Representatives Regulated Industries Committee. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to fool and old fox and Valley Boys are not early risers.
The Chairman caught onto the con very quickly, and David Lowery helped to highlight the scalper scam. But the thing you always have to remember about our brilliant friend David is that he’s been known to pick up his pen and write the song that struggled to be written or the song that was not well received, but five years later be promoted as his best work. That’s why he’s got so many loyal fans. David takes know your customer to a whole new level, so was the perfect subject matter witness for the committee.
So here’s the new twist. What if you didn’t have a ticket but thought that you could get one, no problem once they went on sale–thanks to your friendly neighborhood ticket bot farmer. But what if StubHub made a market for people to buy the opportunity to buy a ticket at some point in the future. That’s right–selling the botted ticket itself isn’t enough for these people.
Now they want to sell bot futures.
The seller could not sell the ticket yet because there was no ticket available. But why leave money on the table?
The seller of these future contracts was confident enough to make a contract with someone of unknown business acumen or sophistication who they convince that the seller would have a ticket available by the time the underlying tickets went on sale. As a market maker, StubHub would bring buyers and sellers together in a supposedly arms length transaction–I guess, I mean how would you really know how arms length it was–and the seller sold the buyer a contract to deliver a future ticket. Let’s call these contracts “futures” or “naked call options”. Or perhaps we should call them “securities.”
So just like short sellers have to cover their shorts, when the tickets get released somebody has to come up with the real tickets. Somebody would have to be confident they could get the very ticket described in the option contract–like you would be if you were the beneficiary of botting. Which, as StubHub will tell you, is illegal. So I’m probably just being cynical.
Technically, “botting” is circumventing “a security measure, access control system, or other technological control or measure on an Internet website or online service that is used by the ticket issuer to enforce posted event ticket purchasing limits or to maintain the integrity of posted online ticket purchasing order rules.”
Personally I think it’s worth asking if the act of selling the futures contract is itself a violation of the BOTS Act as a circumvention of various elements. StubHub may have a legal opinion telling them this is outside the BOTS Act, but let’s ask the FTC, shall we?
On the other hand, if StubHub is selling securities, there’s a whole different regulatory agency that should be examining their business, or it could just be Silicon Valley’s answer to hawala.
So when is a ticket a security? One way we can determine this is through a U.S. Supreme Court case that gives us a pretty clear test. One way—and it’s just one way–that an option on a ticket might be regulated as a security is if it is determined to be an “investment contract” under the test in SEC v. W.J. Howey Co.
The Howey test asks if:
1. there is an investment of money or some other consideration, [Yes]
2. in a common enterprise, [yes]
3. with a reasonable expectation of profits, [oh, yes]
4. to be derived from the efforts of others. [Mos Def]
So that’s pretty inclusive criteria. Before anyone brushes aside the possibility that the SEC could determine a futures contract to buy tickets to be a security, take a close look at those criteria because how the basic question is answered is one to discuss thoroughly with your securities litigation lawyer (or engage one). That advice may be a good idea whether you are either an issuer or an endorser of at the ticket or ticketing platform..
One might say that a one-off sale of a unique product—which is truly “nonfungible” in the sense that there is only one of the product in existence—may be less likely to be determined a “security” under the Howey test. But while any one ticket is a one-off, there are many tickets available to many shows as a general rule, so tickets probably are pretty fungible.
You really do have to get up early in the morning to put one over on a wiley old Georgia committee chairman. You can tell just by looking at the body language that he believes what another wise old bird told me as a youngster. If something feels illegal, it probably is.
 SEC v. W.J. Howey Co., 328 U.S. 293 (1946).