California booksellers are striking back against a newly enacted law inspired by “Star Wars” icon Mark Hamill’s crusade against fake memorabilia, warning that the well-intentioned measure comes with a dark side.
Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of the Bay Area’s Book Passage shops, filed a lawsuit last week to overturn on free speech grounds the Hamill law, which requires booksellers and others who deal in autographed items to keep detailed records of their transactions or face ruinous fines.
Given that bricks-and-mortar bookstores increasingly rely on author book signings to compete with online retailers — most of which, including Amazon, are exempt from the law — sellers have raised alarm about the threat to their bottom line.
“We do probably 700 or 800 autograph events a year in our three stores. It’s the key part of our business,” Mr. Petrocelli said in a video by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which represents him.
The measure has prompted Easton Press to stop shipping signed books to California, said foundation attorney Anastasia Boden.
“I would say overall no one in the country benefits from this,” Mr. Petrocelli said. “It really is a restriction on free expression. It troubles me even more that it’s being selective and that neighborhood bookstores are the ones who are going to be hurt the hardest.”
That wasn’t the intent of the bill’s sponsor, former state Assembly member Ling Ling Chang, who sought to counter rampant fraud in the entertainment collectibles business, which is estimated at more than $100 million per year. California also regulates the sports memorabilia industry.
Ms. Chang joined forces with Mr. Hamill, who has waged his own rebellion against the fake memorabilia empire by letting his fans on Twitter know whether his signature on an item is real or forged. More often than not, the autograph is a phony.
“It just breaks your heart,” Mr. Hamill told BBC1 in a September interview. “The rate of fake autographs is in the 50 to 90 percentile. So what I’m saying to you is that there are more fake autographs than real ones. But there are people out there that, obviously because it is a lucrative business, that are going to take advantage of the fans.”
After the bill sailed through the legislature and was signed in September by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, booksellers, comic book dealers, artists and auctioneers raised concerns about the law’s impact on their transactions.
Under the law, which went into effect Jan. 1, any autographed item worth at least $5 must be accompanied by a certificate of authenticity, including the name and address of the dealer, date and purchase price, any third parties, as well as whether the item was part of a limited edition and details on “the size of any prior or anticipated future edition.”
At an event such as a book signing, the certificate must list the date and place of the event, state whether the dealer was present, and be signed by a witness, which could be the buyer. Sellers are required to keep the sale on file for seven years.
Those stipulations have raised privacy concerns. Ms. Boden said Mr. Petrocelli doesn’t want to keep records on his clients.
“Who wants to have a record of themselves that’s being stored for seven years on what book you were interested in?” she said. “They have all sorts of book signings on all kinds of topics. Caitlyn Jenner was there last week. Maybe people don’t want their names stored about what book they were buying and where they were at.”
Dealers who fall short of the certification requirements face fines of up to 10 times the amount of damages, as well as attorney fees and court costs.
“The cost of record-keeping and major liability threaten to make book signings impossible, and stores such as mine do not want to engage in the massive intrusion on customer privacy that is mandated by the law’s reporting rules,” Mr. Petrocelli said.
Exempt from the law are pawnbrokers, the personality signing the item and any online marketplaces not engaged principally in dealing for collectibles.
“It flew under the radar of booksellers, but it apparently didn’t fly under the radar of other people who have strong lobbyists and were able to secure an exemption for themselves,” said Ms. Boden.
Faced with a backlash, the state legislature is considering at least two bills to amend the law. Ms. Chang issued a letter in October saying that the “intent of the expansion of this 25-year-old consumer protection law was not to include booksellers,” according to The Federal Observer.
Even so, her statement doesn’t carry the force of law. Ms. Chang, a Republican, was defeated in her November re-election bid.
“On its face, the law is written so broadly that it clearly applies to signed books,” Ms. Boden said. “A letter from the author saying she ‘didn’t mean to do that’ can’t change the plain text of the law.”
Neither of the bills to amend the law specifically exempts booksellers, although Assembly Bill 228 raises the threshold from $5 to $50, which would exclude most books.
Although the celebrity memorabilia industry may be fraught with fakes, Ms. Boden said, there is little chance of fraud at a book signing.
“The book is being signed right in front of the patron. There is so little chance of fraud in this context,” said Ms. Boden. “And the patrons pay face value. They don’t pay a premium for the signature.”
Mr. Hamill offered a solution to the problem of fraudulent celebrity signatures: Instead of asking for an entertainer’s autograph, pull out your iPhone and take a photo with the star instead.
“One thing you know when you’re doing selfies is it is for them,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to sell that.”