California threatens to shut down book signings and therefore small booksellers
Book Passage is a hub of literary activity and free expression. In addition to selling books, it hosts over 700 author events a year—in which authors give talks, read passages, interact with readers, and autograph their books. Bill keeps copies of these signed books to sell later—which you can see scattered down the aisles of his store. Book Passage also curates a monthly book club, wherein readers are sent a first edition book signed by an up-and-coming author.
Book Passage doesn’t charge a premium for the autograph; all of its books are sold for their cover price. But a newly enacted California law makes it extremely risky, if not impossible, for Book Passage to continue selling autographed books or hosting author events.
Acting on purported consumer protection concerns, the legislature recently expanded its autograph law (which formerly only applied to sports memorabilia) to include any signed item worth over $5—including books. Under that law, sellers must produce a certificate of authenticity and maintain detailed records of every sale for seven years. Sellers must, among other things:
- Note the purchase price and date of sale,
- specify whether the item is part of a limited edition,
- note the size of the edition, anticipate any future editions,
- disclose whether the seller is bonded,
- divulge any previous owner’s name and address,
- if the book was signed in the presence of the seller, specify the date and location of the signing, and identify a witness to the autograph.
Failure to disclose any of the required details, or to keep the certificate for the full seven years, results in outrageous penalties. Even an inadvertent omission can subject a seller to actual damages, plus a civil penalty of up to 10 times the damages, plus court costs, plus reasonable attorney’s fees, plus expert witness fees, plus interest. Professional plaintiff’s lawyers must be chomping at the bit. If Bill sold just 100 signed copies of a $30 book, but six years later, couldn’t locate the records noting the size of the edition, he’d be liable for (at minimum) $30,000. Bill sells tens of thousands of signed books each year.
For many booksellers like Bill and Book Passage, this massive threat of liability will make holding author events too much of a risk. And the loss to California’s marketplace of ideas will be gargantuan. Book signings aren’t just central to Book Passage’s business model, they’re vital to up-and-coming authors with less represented views, who use book signings to lure new readers. Many famous authors got their start by doing signing events. While Book Passage hosts such big names as Isabelle Allende and Khaled Hosseini, it also frequently hosts local poets, fiction writers, and even chefs who have authored cookbooks.
Even worse than irrational, the law is pernicious: despite the law’s vast breadth (it also covers paintings, sculptures, and auctioneers), certain sellers have secured exemptions. Online retailers and pawn shops, those places where uninformed buyers are most vulnerable, do not have to comply.
We are challenging this poorly written, overbroad, yet underinclusive, bill in court. To find out more, visit our case page here, or watch the video below.
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Book Passage v. Becerra
In the wake of a First Amendment challenge by Bay Area book seller Bill Petrocelli and his renowned store, Book Passage, California has rescinded the state’s onerous “certificate of authenticity” requirement for the sale of autographed books. The regulation would have made it extremely risky, if not impossible, for stores to sell signed books or host author events.
Under the former law, sellers of any autographed good worth over $5—including books—were required to provide a Certificate of Authenticity that included details about the transaction and the personal information about buyers and previous owners. Any omission, or failing to maintain the records for seven years, resulted in outrageous fines. Following PLF’s lawsuit, the legislature passed AB 228, which exempts books from the mandates.Read more
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