Walk into an independent book store in most cities and you’re likely to find signed copies of various authors’ books sitting around. Sometimes the authors will sign a bunch as part of an in-store appearance; sometimes the writer or their publisher will ship a box of signed books; sometimes authors just go into stores and do ninja-style signings without anyone knowing. This is all fine in most of the country, but no longer in California, where a new law requires anyone sells virtually any autographed item to include a certificate of authenticity and to keep detailed records of each item for years.
California already had a controversial law on the books requiring authentication and record-keeping of signed memorabilia, but strictly for sports collectibles. Then in 2016, without a single opposing vote, the state legislature approved an amendment to that law that expands these requirements to all signed items worth $5 or more.
That means that all those signed books sold at stores all around California now need to meet these new requirements, and this isn’t just a matter of inserting a simple slip of paper into each book.
The amended law requires each certificate include several very specific pieces of information.
Sure’s there’s the description of the item and the name of the signer, and also the price and sale date. The document must also disclose if the book is part of a limited collection, how many items are in that collection, how they’re numbered, and the sizes of any previous or future editions (or a statement explaining that this information is not available).
But wait, there’s more. The certificate must indicate if the book store is bonded, or has insurance to protect against bogus signatures; whether the item was signed in the presence of the dealer (and if so, when and where, along with the name of the witness); whether the item was received from a third party (plus that third party’s name and address). Additionally, book stores must keep records of these certificates for seven years after sale.
Some booksellers are fed up, and one has sued the state in federal court, alleging that the law runs afoul of their First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
According to the complaint [PDF], the book store contends that the California law unconstitutionally “burdens the ability of… 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.”
Fraudulent autographed memorabilia is a problem for both collectors and sellers of bona fide collectibles, as signed items often command a premium price tag.
However, with the exception of booksellers who specialize in rare tomes, most book stores don’t charge more for books that have been signed by the author. The plaintiffs, who operate a small chain of book stores in the San Francisco Bay Area, in this case argue that, since they charge the exact same price regardless of author signatures, and because virtually all of the signed books are done as part of authors’ in-store appearances, “there is no potential for financial harm to the customer from a fraudulent signature for the sale of a signed book.”
Aside from the new record-keeping requirements being placed on book stores, what appears to really gall booksellers is who the amended law exempts: Pawn shops and online retailers.
Pawn shops don’t usually host in-store book readings and signings, so there are immediately questions about whether a signature may be genuine. But at least you can look at the signature at a pawn shop. When you’re buying a signed book online, you’re ultimately taking the seller’s word about the autograph, and can’t judge for yourself until it arrives.
Thus, argues the lawsuit, “Pawn brokers and online marketers are just as likely, if not more likely, to engage in sales of fraudulent autographs.”
The plaintiffs contend that the law violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by “irrationally and arbitrarily discriminates against Plaintiffs and in favor of special interests — pawn brokers and online marketers — in violation of Plaintiffs’ right to equal protection of the laws.”
While the state legislature is currently considering a bill that would further clarify this law, book sellers are at risk for potentially large legal liabilities.
Failing to comply with these rules could mean significant damages for booksellers. Just inadvertently forgetting to include a certificate of authenticity in a book (or not keeping track of that slip for the full seven years) opens up the door to a lawsuit for up to 10 times the cost of the book, plus interest and costs for attorneys and experts.
Lawyers for the plaintiff give the chilling example of a book store that sells 100 signed books for $30 each, and six years later can no longer find their copies of the certificates. That would open up the door to liability of at least $30,000. Given that some book stores sell thousands of autographed copies each year, the attorney representing the booksellers says that litigious lawyers “must be chomping at the bit” for the lawsuits to come.