Bookstore Owner Sues California Over Law Regulating Autographed Items | WYPR

Bookstore Owner Sues California Over Law Regulating Autographed Items

Jun 19, 2017
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A new law in California requires anyone selling an autographed item for more than $5 to certify that item's authenticity. The law expands regulations that were originally meant to deal with fake sports memorabilia, only now it covers anything with an autograph. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on the angry reaction of dealers and bookstore owners.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: At the Sausalito store Book Passage recently, fans of author W. Bruce Cameron crowded around as he signed his new novel, "A Dog's Way Home."

W BRUCE CAMERON: Hi.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: If you can make this out to my mom Sandra.

CAMERON: I will.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Thank you.

CAMERON: She's a dog lover, right?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.

DEL BARCO: Events like this are essential for many independent bookstores hoping to serve and attract loyal customers. Book Passage co-owner Bill Petrocelli says his three Bay Area stores host as many as 800 book signings every year for fans.

BILL PETROCELLI: The fact that they can buy an autographed book is what makes the whole thing financially feasible for us to do.

DEL BARCO: Under the new law, he and other booksellers must carefully notate the time and date of the sale, the names of the buyers and even witnesses. Then the bookkeeping would have to be saved for seven years.

PETROCELLI: We'd have to take down everyone's name, get bonded, have this long, elaborate process we'd have to go through. We'd have to triple our staff in order to - just to do that. And the autograph lines would be so long and so slow and so intrusive that, you know, people wouldn't show up.

DEL BARCO: Petrocelli says he could be sued for selling an autographed book if he doesn't have this documentation. But he says the law poses a more fundamental concern.

PETROCELLI: You have to get the names and the details of everyone who buys the book. And we think that's, you know, a major intrusion on our customers' privacy and on their First Amendment rights. People should be able to walk into a bookstore, meet the author, buy the book, have a conversation and leave.

DEL BARCO: So Petrocelli continues to host book signings, and he's filed suit against the state attorney general's office on privacy and First Amendment grounds. The California autograph law was written by former Republican Assembly member Ling Ling Chang. When she was crusading for consumer protection, she was joined by a force from "Star Wars," actor Mark Hamill.

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MARK HAMILL: I've heard a couple of stories that just break your heart.

DEL BARCO: On KNBC TV in Los Angeles last year, Hamill warned fans that almost all of the autographs of him for sale are phony. He even went on Twitter offering to verify his signature on memorabilia.

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HAMILL: There's always been scam artists and con men. And you're not going to change that. But if you can try and maybe make the public a little more aware of it, that's what this legislation's about.

DEL BARCO: Hamill may not have realized how the law could affect independent booksellers. Chang is no longer in office, but told NPR she still stands by the bill that passed unanimously. The law has sparked concern from comic book and rare book dealers. Several, including Newbury Comics, have already stopped shipping autographed books to California. Now another Assembly member in San Diego, Todd Gloria, is proposing a new bill that would amend Chang's law.

TODD GLORIA: An autographed collectible would be defined as anything worth $50 or more where there is a signature that increases the value and the product itself has to deal with sports, music, television or film.

DEL BARCO: The new bill already has the support of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, the Horror Writers Association and the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, among others.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I can't wait to read this.

DEL BARCO: Meanwhile, bookstore owner Bill Petrocelli's lawsuit is proceeding through the courts. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.