Sunday, February 25, 2007

WHEN IS A SCALPER NOT A SCALPER?

When I checked eBay this morning, there were 35,629 tickets being resold, covering events ranging from concerts and plays to boxing matches and NASCAR races. Many were being offered by professional ticket brokers, but some were listed by individuals. Plenty of people sell tickets that they can't or don't want to use.

Mary Nolan of Mission Viejo, Calif., wants to know when it's ethical to resell tickets and when it's not OK.

Obviously, it's not OK anytime it's against the law. Some U.S. states and Canadian provinces prohibit the resale of tickets or place restrictions on how much profit you can make. There's a list of these restrictions on eBay that's easy to find if you click on "help" and search for "tickets." It lists no restrictions for California. The only thing the state prohibits, according to Kevin Flanagan of the California Department of Consumer Affairs, is the resale of tickets on the premises of an event without permission.

Nolan has a more specific issue in mind, however: She wants to know if someone who is given or wins tickets at work is obligated to give them back if he or she can't use them.

A friend's company sponsors events such as concerts, sporting events and fashion shows. When it has extra tickets, it raffles them off to its employees. On one occasion, however, an employee who won the tickets couldn't go and instead sold them on eBay -- which Nolan's friend thought was problematic.

"Was this the right thing to do?" Nolan asks. "Or are they considered property of the company, and should only that employee have used the tickets?"

Company policy is of no help, since there is no current rule covering such circumstances. Even his fellow employees were divided on whether he should have returned the tickets once he realized that he couldn't attend the event.

The issue resurfaced recently when Nolan's husband was given tickets to a sporting event by his company.

"We were unable to go at the last minute," she writes. "We gave them away to a friend of a friend, but were unsure of the propriety of this."

There is nothing wrong with Nolan's friend selling his tickets on eBay, nor with her husband giving away his tickets. Unless the company has a specific policy stating otherwise, the tickets are given unconditionally, and become the property of the person who receives them, to do with as he or she wishes.

It's no different than if the company had given the employee a hundred-dollar bill or an alarm clock. No one would question the employee's right to hand over the money or the clock to someone else. It's none of the company's business what happens to the tickets once they've been given away, whether they're used, left used or either given or sold to some third party. Selling the tickets rather than using them may feel different to some colleagues, but feeling something doesn't make it so.

Obviously, if either company had a policy stating that tickets must be used by the person to whom they were given or returned to the company, that would be a different story. If the gift of the tickets is conditional, it's unethical to violate the conditions. In neither of Nolan's instances, however, was that the case.

If the tickets were given out to a group of company employees who were expecting to go to the event together, it would be understandable if some employees were upset at having a stranger turn up among them on the night of the show. But when a prize is given out with no strings attached, the right thing to do is to let the winner of the tickets do whatever he or she wants with them.

Instead of griping, simply hope to win the tickets yourself the next time around.

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