Column

Legislative misfire: Lawmakers targeted memorabilia scams but hit corner bookstores by mistake

Running an independent bookstore is hard enough, says Bill Petrocelli, the co-owner (with his wife, Elaine) of the Bay Area’s two popular Book Passage stores. And that’s without getting blindsided by a new state law that could quash author signings, impose draconian bureaucratic burdens on stores like his, and open them up to a whole new category of nuisance lawsuits.

It’s not much comfort to Petrocelli, other California bookstore owners or dealers in autographed historical items, that none of this was intended by the law. It was aimed, rather, at the trade in faked signatures purporting to be from entertainment personalities. The fact that it might be “devastating for thousands of legitimate California-based book and comic book stores,” in the words of Brian Hibbs, owner of the Comix Experience stores in San Francisco — that’s collateral damage.

“Nobody in the independent bookselling community saw this coming,” Petrocelli says. By the time they woke up, the measure already had been signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. They’ve been assured by Sacramento experts that the law doesn’t apply to bookstores selling author-autographed books, but the text itself is vague on the issue. That unnerves booksellers who rely on author events to draw customers; the two Book Passage stores hold as many as 900 such events a year. (As an author, I’ve participated in several.) 

Dealers in historical items may have even more cause for concern, since there’s almost no doubt that they’re subject to the law and subject to provisions that may be impossible to meet. 

If you’re looking for examples of the unintended consequences of inattentive lawmaking, you don’t need to go further than Assembly Bill 1570.

Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) was working on a bill to tighten restrictions on memorabilia dealers, but her effort gained steam after actor Mark Hamill tweeted a complaint about increasingly encountering his counterfeited autograph on “Star Wars” fan items. (Hamill told me he supported a bill that would cover entertainment as well as sports memorabilia.)

Chang simply revised a 1992 law applying to autographed sports memorabilia, essentially by striking the word “sports.” The result was a bill that applied to any autographed item sold in or from California by “a dealer to a consumer for five dollars ($5) or more.”

The measure retained all the provisions originally targeted at scammers hawking signed sports equipment, jerseys and trading cards in a market widely known as a haven for forgeries. It imposed penalties of up to 10 times the amount of damages and mandated that every item carry a signed certificate of authenticity bearing the name and address of the seller, the name of a witness to the signing, and more. Each certificate has to be kept by the dealer for seven years.

The bill sailed through both houses of the legislature in August without a single vote in opposition — standard procedure in Sacramento whenever Hollywood demands quick service. It was signed by Gov. Brown on Sept. 9. The law will go into effect Jan. 1.

Chang and her staff say general bookstores should just ignore the law, since it wasn’t designed to apply to them. That’s easy for them to say, but not especially comforting for booksellers, who would bear the legal risk if a judge decides that Chang is wrong. 

As legislating, this was inexcusably sloppy. None of the Senate or Assembly analysts who studied the bill appears to have devoted a second’s thought to whether the market for autographed collectibles might extend beyond sports or entertainment, and what differences there might be. For the most part, they just parroted Chang’s assertion that “94% of all autographed Beatles memorabilia is forged, as are 76% of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley collectibles” and that the FBI values forged memorabilia at $500 million to $900 million— figures that are unverifiable and probably inflated.

“It’s disappointing and surprising that no one reached out to the professional organizations in this field,” says Gabe Boyers, a dealer of music-related historical items in Newton, Mass., and president of the Professional Autograph Dealers Assn. “There was a lack of real engagement.”

Chang’s office is very defensive about this fiasco. Chang, who is running for a state Senate seat, wouldn’t get on the phone with me. Instead, she emailed a statement insisting that her measure “does not apply to bookstores any more than it would a convenience store.” She blamed the uproar on “misinformation circulated on the internet” and pledged “to submit a statement on the legislative record clarifying how this bill applies to booksellers of all kinds.” The goal is to specify that the law doesn’t apply to author signings at general bookstores. 

That may not be good enough. Chang’s statement will need to be approved by the speaker of the Assembly, so it may not materialize until after the law goes into effect. Meanwhile, the law stands as written, applying to anyone “principally in the business of selling or offering for sale collectibles” or holding themselves out as “having knowledge or skill peculiar to collectibles.” It defines “collectible,” however, only as “an autographed item sold or offered for sale” for $5 or more.

Some booksellers may be booksellers and collectible dealers. “We sell all kinds of merchandise, not just expensive first editions,” says Scott Brown, owner of Eureka Books in the city of the same name. Although only about one-third of his sales are of autographed items, his inventory includes not merely books and greeting cards signed by local authors and artists, but collections of Isaac Asimov works signed by the author and an inscribed copy of Richard Nixon’s memoirs.

Booksellers who participated in a conference call last month with Chang’s Sacramento office director, Christopher Finarelli, say he was understanding about the need to clarify that bookstores aren’t the law’s target. But they’re also aware that it may not be Chang, but a trial judge, who would have the last word on this issue.  

“There’s a little nervousness about people setting you up” with a lawsuit, says Chris Volk, owner of the Ione, Calif., online service Bookfever.com and former president of the Independent Online Booksellers Assn. 

Antiquarian dealers are certainly subject to the law. The mandate to generate a certificate of authenticity for every item is impractical for those who may have tens of thousands of items for sale, some acquired so long ago that the records are lost; the law doesn’t exempt items already in inventory. Requiring that the names and addresses of third-party sellers be kept as a public record, they say, will discourage sales by private collectors who might not want to advertise to burglars that they have priceless items stowed at home.

Dealers in historical artifacts don’t claim that their business is immune to fraud, but say their professional organizations provide reasonable customer safeguards. The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Assn. of America and the Professional Autograph Dealers Assn. like the Independent Online Booksellers, require members to comply with codes of ethics that include offering unlimited money-back guarantees of the authenticity of their wares, on pain of being drummed out of the organizations. These dealers don’t typically issue “certificates of authenticity” because they’re worthless — nothing would stop a determined forger from faking them, too. 

“They’re not meaningfully related to authenticity; they just add red tape,” says Boyers, who says he has withdrawn from upcoming California book fairs because of the law, giving up the more than $40,000 in income he customarily collects at such events in the state.

What’s really necessary to address these issues is a wholesale revision of the law. That won’t happen this year, because the legislature is effectively out of session until January. Chang’s office says she might be willing to introduce a clean-up measure “if a need exists.”

The need exists. But it wouldn’t have, if Chang, her colleagues in the capital and Gov. Brown treated this legislation as an occasion for professionalism, not just publicity. 

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

Return to Michael Hiltzik's blog.


UPDATES:

11:09 a.m.: This post has been updated to clarify that Assemblywoman Chang was already working on a memorabilia bill when Mark Hamill complained about counterfeit signatures, and adds a comment from Hamill.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
71°