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May 11 2017

Wrapping Bookstores in Red Tape

by Charlotte Hays

If you regard independent bookstores as important to a town's quality of life, then a new law in California that threatens such businesses should concern you.

The law is AB 1570, which was designed to protect consumers when they purchase celebrity memorabilia. But it is clearly excessive, as it covers any signed item (and that includes autographed books) that costs $5 or more.  Publishers Weekly explains:

Last year, the California legislature broadened a set of civil code regulations focused on autographed collectibles to include “all autographed items” with a value over $5. Assembly Bill 1570 requires anyone selling autographed books to provide an extremely detailed “certificate of authenticity” with each book, describing the book, identifying the signer, noting witnesses of the book signing, insurance information, and other details. Per the new law, booksellers must keep the certificates for seven years or risk substantial damages, court fees, and a civil penalty if the autographed book gets questioned in court.

Nobody wants to buy a fake celebrity memento, but this is absurd.

As somebody whose books cost more than $5 and who has benefited immensely from book signings (people prefer autographed books--even if it's autographed by yours truly and her coauthor), I can see where this is going. I'll bet no independent book seller would have let me come sign--and thus sell more of--my books if these draconian rules had been in place. This is a real threat to independent book dealers, who rely on author signings.

Bill Petrocelli, the co-owner of Book Passage, in Corte Madera, told the Marin County Independent Journal how it would affect his business:

“You have to get all kinds of records and affidavits and bonding and everything else,” he said. “And I’ve never seen a civil penalty that Draconian. The gist of it is, if you fall under this law, you’re screwed. It makes it too expensive to sell autographed books.”

The bookseller is concerned enough about the possible fallout from the law that, with help from the Pacific Legal Foundation, he is suing the state. Publishers Weekly reports:

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a non-profit law firm defending “private property rights, individual liberty, free enterprise, [and] limited government,” mounted Petrocelli’s lawsuit free of charge, as it does for all its clients. “We spoke to booksellers up and down the coast,” said Anastasia Boden, one of the PLF attorneys representing Book Passage in the suit. “But Bill was the only one so far brave enough to join a constitutional lawsuit and act as a civil rights plaintiff.”

The lawsuit argues that common bookstore practices like guest author lectures and book signings “are fundamental to First Amendment freedoms.” By that argument, the regulations Assembly Bil 1570 places on booksellers violates a basic freedom accorded to all Americans by the Constitution.

According to the lawsuit, the new paperwork and penalties “significantly burdened and seriously threatened” Petrocelli’s efforts to sell books autographed by their authors. Book Passage hosts around 700 author events every year, as well as a “Signed First Editions Club” for dedicated members. These programs, under the new law, would generate thousands of pages of paperwork, as well as the potential for massive liabilities.

How did the law come about in the first place? Sports memorabilia has been covered since 1992, but AB 1570 reportedly is the result of  "Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill complaining to Southern California Assemblywoman Ling Chang that he saw a lot of fake signed movie posters. The law was passed and signed by Governor Jerry Brown before it occurred to anyone that it could be detrimental to book stores. A suggestion to California lawmakers: think before you legislate.

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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