California Autograph Hurdles Raise Alarm at Bookstores

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A new California law intended to crack down on fake celebrity autographs has placed unconstitutional restrictions on the sale of signed books, a bookstore owner claims in a federal complaint.

Book Passage, a Bay Area bookseller with three outlets, and its owner Bill Petrocelli sued California Attorney General Xavier Becerra on Thursday, claiming the state’s onerous requirements for selling signed collectibles make it harder for bookstores to host author events and sell autographed books.

Assembly Bill 1570, which took effect Jan. 1, requires anyone selling signed collectibles to provide a certificate of authenticity that includes a description of the item, identity of the signer, signature date, witnesses and other details. Retailers are required to keep copies of the certificates for seven years.

“This law violates the First Amendment because it burdens the ability of Book Passage and Mr. Petrocelli, as well as other booksellers, to provide a forum for authors and their readers; and to disseminate books, including books that may be autographed, dedicated, or otherwise inscribed by authors,” the 13-page complaint states.

Petrocelli says the law will stifle the signing of autographs, a form of protected speech. He also says it will chill authors’ ability to write inscriptions to readers, discourage customers from attending authors’ events, and prevent customers from buying signed books anonymously.

The legislation was introduced by former Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang, a Los Angeles County Republican, who left the Assembly last November after narrowly losing a bid for state senator.

Although the law was intended to target entertainment memorabilia rather than books, Petrocelli says his bookstore could face criminal fines and civil penalties of up to 10 times the actual damages suffered by a consumer without any finding of intentional wrongdoing.

The legislation revised California Civil Code 1739.7, which previously pertained only to sports memorabilia. The expanded law covers any autographed collectible sold for $5 or more.

The law requires sellers of signed collectibles provide a certificate that specifies the item’s “limited edition” status; indicate whether the dealer is insured to protect the consumer against dealer errors and omissions; state the last four digits of a resale certificate number from the State Board of Equalization; indicate whether the item came from a third party; and identify a serial number if one is printed on the item. The serial number must also be printed or written on the sales receipt.

Petrocelli says these burdensome rules chill the protected speech of bookstores and hinder their ability to host author events and book signings.

Petrocelli and his wife Elaine launched their business in Marin County in 1976. Today, their three bookstores in San Francisco and Marin County host more than 700 author events each year, according to their lawsuit.

“Author events provide an important forum for local and up-and-coming authors to spread their ideas and engage with their audience,” the complaint states. “The availability of author events is vital for the sale of local books and books written by new authors.”

Nearly all signed books sold by Book Passage are signed by writers at authors’ events, Petrocelli says. Customers are not charged extra for signed books, and the signatures “rarely add value to the books,” he says.

“Because The Book’s Passage’s customers do not pay extra for the author’s signature, there is no potential for financial harm to the customer from a fraudulent signature for the sale of a signed book,” the lawsuit states.

Petrocelli says the law violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because it exempts pawnbrokers and online sellers from the onerous requirements.

He seeks a permanent injunction to nullify the law’s criminal and civil penalties.

He is represented by Anastasia Boden with the Pacific Legal Foundation in Sacramento.

Tania Mercado, press secretary for the state Attorney General’s Office, said the office was still reviewing the complaint and had no immediate comment Thursday afternoon.

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