'Autograph Bill' Sparks Lawsuit from Local Bookseller

 (Bill Petrocelli)

A law originally intended to protect buyers of Star Wars paraphernalia has culminated in one Bay Area bookstore owner taking the State of California to court.

Bill Petrocelli, an owner at the independent bookstore chain Book Passage, filed a lawsuit in May against the state to overturn Assembly Bill No. 1570. The bill, which was officially enacted in January, expands California’s “autograph law" to put regulations on any autographed good or memorabilia item worth more than $5. The original "autograph law" was passed in 1992 to cover autographed sports memorabilia.

Bookstore owners such as Petrocelli fear the repercussions that AB 1570 could have on the future of independent bookstores. Under AB 1570, bookstores that sell autographed books and hold author events and talks -- such as Book Passage, which holds around 700 speaking engagements annually across its three Bay Area locations -- would run the risk of legal woes.

“This law was aimed at protecting people who bought collectible items -- sports and entertainment memorabilia,” said Petrocelli. “It was drafted in such a way that it would apply to everything that has an autograph, which, in our case, is books. We don’t charge extra for the book. [The autograph] is done simultaneously in front of the customer. There’s a whole bunch of ways in which our situation is different from collectibles and memorabilia.”

The bill was written by former State Representative Ling Ling Chang to restrict the distribution of collectible goods with forged autographs. The original bill was famously advocated by Star Wars actor Mark Hammill, who has issued “counterfeit checks” (verifying or denying his autograph's authenticity) for fans who have purchased signed memorabilia on Twitter.

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Chang issued a clarification in October last year, a month after the original bill was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The clarification would have exempted bookstores, specifically stating that the bill would only regulate collectible dealers and other merchants of rare memorabilia. Its legitimacy, however, is made tenuous by the fact that Chang no longer holds a seat in the Assembly after a failed run for a State Senate seat last year.

According to Petrocelli, the Book Passage has been “walking on eggshells” by continuing to hold author signings and selling autographed books at their stores since AB 1570 was officially put into law.

“If we’re not considered a dealer [by law], then the rules don’t apply,” Petrocelli said. “But, at any time, someone could file a lawsuit. There’s simply no way we can comply with it aside from doing the wherewithal of the complicated requirements.”

The requirements for the bill mandate that small bookstores must issue a Certificate of Authenticity for any qualifying good, document these goods and its previous owner and maintain a list in its archives for at least seven years.

For Petrocelli's attorney Anastasia Boden of the Pacific Legal Foundation, the passage of AB 1570 carries ramifications that extend into First Amendment violations.

“We are arguing that the law violates the First Amendment by burdening the sale of books, and books are a form of communication protected by the First Amendment,” she said. “This autograph law would deprive authors of a venue to share their ideas, and deprive readers a space to hear these ideas out.”

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a conservative-leaning public interest law firm, is taking on Petrocelli's case pro bono.

Some legislators are already working to pass bills that would exempt Book Passage and other indie bookstores from the “autograph bill.” The most notable of these acts was Assembly Bill No. 228, introduced by Assemblymembers Todd Gloria and David Chiu, and its companion bill Senate Bill No. 579.

Both bills would loosen restrictions on bookstores that sell autographed books, whether through holding in-store events or by stocking new and used autographed copies of books. However, Boden contends that while the Senate Bill covers bookstore exemptions, the language in AB 228 fails to fully protect bookstores from possible litigation.

“The Assembly bill would include certain books, including entertainment and sports memorabilia,” said Boden. “If you think about it, any book that’s made into a movie — is that memorabilia? Is a biography of Michael Jordan sports memorabilia?”

Chiu, who represents San Francisco's District 17,  nevertheless hopes that the amended bill can rectify Petrocelli's concerns, though he was not familiar with the lawsuit.

"AB 228 is intended to make it clear and easy for bookstores to have those events," Chiu said. "We want to make sure that their challenges are alleviated."

As of Tuesday, the Senate hearing for AB 228 has been postponed in committee. The lawsuit itself, Book Passage v. Becerra, has yet to be heard by a Superior Court. Petrocelli and the Pacific Legal Foundation, in the meantime, are planning to issue a preliminary injunction to invalidate AB 1570 until the case can be settled in court.

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