Certifiably silly rule
Last year, lawmakers in California unanimously voted to require those who sell autographed collectibles (more on that definition later) to include a certificate which guarantees the authenticity of the signature; if no certificate is provided, substantial financial penalties will be incurred.
The law saw support from consumer advocates fighting against scammers, as well as film studios, and police chiefs tired of dealing with fraudulent memorabilia.
One group, however, isn’t pleased with the new regulations. Independent booksellers across the state are often lauded as community hubs where authors and readers can meet and engage with each other, and author signings are often a big part of that.
A signed copy of a book falls under the jurisdiction of this law, and thus independent booksellers in California must now deal with the administrative burden of hundreds (or thousands) of certificates.
Not so fast
In protest, Bill Petrocelli, the co-owner of a chain of bookstores called Book Passage, has filed a federal lawsuit that accuses the state of violating freedom of speech. Petrocelli claims the new requirements “create a nightmare for independent booksellers that thrive on author events and book signings.”
The bookstore owner says his stores host over 700 promotional events each year, which account for tens of thousands of author-autographed books a year.
These signed books cost no more than unsigned books, and the events are designed to allow customers “to be exposed to new ideas, debate with authors, and interact with other consumers,” said Anastasia Boden, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, the property-rights group that agreed to represent Petrocelli and his bookstores pro bono.
She goes on, “But the new law deters, if not effectively bans, these events.”
Ling Ling Chang, author of the now-controversial law, says that though she hasn’t seen the lawsuit, her support for the bill stands strong, and she stands by any “efforts to stop those who would rip off unsuspecting collectors.”
Specifically, this new law is an expansion of an earlier regulation that only dealt with sports memorabilia. The current law now requires all sellers (except pawnbrokers and online merchants) to include a certificate of authenticity with any item they sell for $5 or more. The certificate must declare the authenticity of the signature, and state whether or not the seller was present at the signing, and identify anyone who witnessed the signing.
That last one is particularly problematic when the witnesses could be the entire audience at an author’s reading and book signing event.
And if a seller fails to adhere to those regulations, they’re liable for all kinds of expensive fees.
In part, the law grew out of evidence that $100 million worth of the $1 billion annual revenue in the national memorabilia market involved forged signatures.
However, Petrocelli isn’t convinced that the law is relevant to the bookstore business.
In the lawsuit, lawyers claim the regulations will stifle book signing by introducing “burdensome oversight and record-keeping” that won’t actually do anything useful for regulating the memorabilia industry, because neither the authors nor the bookstores make a direct profit from an author’s signature on a book. They also pointed out that the same requirements are technically imposed upon an individual who decides to sell an autographed book.
The law begs a few questions. Does a name scrawled in a textbook count as a signature? How can you provide witnesses for something that was signed fifty years ago (or even five years ago, for that matter)? The scope of the law seems over-broad, not to mention unenforceable. No way are police going to track down every signed copy of an indie author’s book.
Even if they all magically had certificates of authenticity, what does that even mean? Are the cops now universal signature experts?
Petrocelli is hoping to get the law declared over-broad and exempt bookstores from its enforcement. A couple of suggestions for revision? First, the law should only apply if the signed item is being sold for more than its list price (i.e. there’s a premium for the signature – otherwise who cares?). And second, the idea of authentication should be carefully defined: who counts as a witness, and what do you do if the item is so old there are no living witnesses left?