Ticketmaster Wins Big Injunction in Hannah Montana Case, But Did the Public Interest Get Screwed?–Ticketmaster v. RMG

By Eric Goldman

Ticketmaster L.L.C. v. RMG Technologies, Inc., 2007 WL 2988403 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 16, 2007)

You may remember Ticketmaster’s multi-year battle against Tickets.com over data aggregation and deep linking. Ticketmaster never got a solid win in that case, but here Ticketmaster successfully advances the same legal theories against someone gaming its allocation of tickets. Hannah Montana fans might cheer this ruling, but some of the court’s analysis makes this a troubling Cyberlaw development.

Introduction

This case involves what I’ll call “ticket sniping”–the practice of quickly snapping up highly-sought-after tickets when they first go on sale and then reselling them at higher prices. When it comes to hot concerts–such as the upcoming Hannah Montana tour–Ticketmaster’s price may be well below the prices people are willing to pay in the secondary market. Why don’t event promoters use auctions or other dynamic pricing scheme to capture this upside on the first sale? I’m reminded of the odd pricing systems for IPOs–just like that market, perhaps Ticketmaster (as an intermediary) deliberately underprices below the market-clearing price to increase its profits.

In any case, initial ticket buyers from Ticketmaster can get an economic windfall, which naturally motivates people to game the initial first-come, first-served ticket allocation system. RMG was one such gamer. They developed software that helped its customers beat other buyers in the rush to get hot tickets. Ticketmaster sued RMG to stop their gaming activities; the court issues a preliminary injunction:

Copyright

The court says that RMG directly infringed Ticketmaster’s copyright in its web pages by browsing them to test the operation of its software tool. Effectively, then, the court says that web browsing is copyright infringement. This isn’t the first time a court intimated as much, but it’s troubling every time we see it.

The court overlooks any implied license to browse because Ticketmaster’s “browsewrap” on its home page (which says “Use of this website is subject to express Terms of Use which prohibit commercial use of this site. By continuing past this page, you agree to abide by these terms”) acts as an express restriction on browsing, so any access in contravention of those terms constitutes copyright infringement.

One of the key Qs is how RMG’s software differs from other search engine robots. The court skirts this Q, simply pointing to Perfect 10 v. Amazon as excusing the cache copies made by web users who follow search engine links. Of course, search engine robots make lots of other copies, and we think these copies are excused because the final presentation (the display of search results snippets) doesn’t infringe. The court doesn’t address this at all.

The court also says that RMG is indirectly infringing based on a Grokster inducement theory because RMG’s marketing said it’s offering “stealth technology [that] lets you hide your IP address, so you never get blocked by Ticketmaster.” This is a pretty expansive interpretation of copyright inducement because the marketing references IP address blocks, not copyright infringement, but it’s very consistent with the court’s moral condemnation of RMG’s behavior.

Anti-Circumvention

The court says that website pages are protected by copyright, and the website used a CAPTCHA to restrict access to these copyrighted works. Thus, distributing the software tool designed to circumvent the CAPTCHA to access the copyrighted website violates 1201(a)(2) and 1201(b)(1). Not only does this give unexpected copyright protection for CAPTCHAs, this ruling seems inconsistent with several precedents holding that bypassing a password protection system doesn’t violate 1201.

Breach of Contract

As indicated above, the court upholds Ticketmaster’s browsewrap. Admittedly, Ticketmaster has improved its contract formation processes since it litigated against Tickets.com, but I’m not sure this was as easy as the court treated it.

Computer Fraud & Abuse Act

Surprisingly, the court denies relief for this claim because Ticketmaster couldn’t allege $5,000 of loss. I tell my students that if they can’t construct $5,000 of loss under the CFAA, then they aren’t thinking creatively enough.

Conclusion

It’s easy to point at RMG and its customers as the bad guys. After all, they are trying to get an unfair advantage in the first-come, first-served allocation of scarce tickets for their economic benefit, with the result that later comers have to pay more to get the same tickets.

But what about Ticketmaster’s role in this situation? They haven’t designed a technologically gaming-resistant allocation of tickets, so they need legal help to solve that deficiency. I also remain suspicious about Ticketmaster’s incentives here, both in setting prices and in policing against ticket allocation gaming. Their motives may not be nearly so consumer-friendly as they try to portray.

And this opinion is hardly pro-consumer either. This ruling won’t be a problem if future courts limit this ruling solely to a company’s efforts to legally protect a competently designed anti-gaming strategy. But some of the more dramatic rulings are anything but consumer-friendly, such as the implicit holding that browsing is copyright infringement and the upholding of Ticketmaster’s browsewrap. If other courts apply these principles more broadly, Hannah Montana concertgoers may have gotten a benefit at the expense of us all.

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