California

Bookstores Suffer Unintended Consequences From Mark Hamill's Campaign Against Fake Autographs

Don't use government force, Luke

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Jon Furniss / Corbis/Newscom

In a galaxy far, far away, Luke Skywalker is the ultimate hero (or is he?), but here's a note to state lawmakers in this galaxy: maybe don't trust him to make policy for you.

California is learning that the hard way, as a new law championed by Star Wars actor Mark Hamill has landed the state in court. In that lawsuit, the owners of a California-based book store argue that new rules governing the sale of autographed memorabilia—like books signed by authors at events hosted by their store and scores of others around the state—are overly burdensome, threaten harsh punishments for minor infractions, and above all else are poorly written.

Under the terms of the law, which passed last year and took effect in January, retailers have to provide certificates of authenticity for all autographed merchandise worth more than $5. That doesn't sound like a difficult burden for retailers, but look at what has to be included on that certificate.

The law specifies that those certificates must contain a description of the collectible and the name of the person who signed it, the purchase price and date, and an "explicit statement" of authenticity. It must also indicate how many items were signed, whether they are numbered as part of a series, and whether any more might be sold in the future. Oh, and there has to be proof that the seller is insured. And, of course, there has to be a certificate number provided by the bureaucrats at the State Board of Equalization (a real thing, believe it or not, tasked with collecting various taxes and fees for everything from gasoline to recycled computers). There's a separate requirement for an "identifying serial number," which, naturally, has to match the serial number of the receipt—a receipt that must be kept by the seller for no less than seven years after the transaction. Finally, the certificate of authenticity has to say whether the author provided his John Hancock in the presence of the dealer, or another witness, and include the name of the witness. (There is no word on whether the witness' first born must also sign the form.)

Make a mistake on any of those requirements, and dealers could be liable for penalties equal to 10 times the purchase price of the autographed item—plus court costs and attorneys' fees.

"This law's expensive mandates — with voluminous reporting requirements and draconian penalties — create a nightmare for independent booksellers that thrive on author events and book signings," said Bill Petrocelli, owner of the Marin County-based Book Passage, which has three locations around the San Francisco Bay Area. Petrocelli is the plaintiff in the lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction against the enforcement of the autograph law. The Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian legal nonprofit, is representing him in the lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed in federal court for the Northern District of California.

Anastasia Boden, an attorney for PLF, says the law does little to protect consumers from the dangers of fraudulently autographed memorabilia. Rather, the lawsuit alleges, the law will have a chilling effect on "truthful, non-misleading speech" protected by the First Amendment, as it will reduce or eliminate book-signing events, like the ones Book Passage hosts hundreds of times each year.

Retailers, authors, and the general public lose, but the law could be a big win for trial lawyers, given the high threshold for record-keeping imposed on retailers, and the potentially debilitating penalties that could be visited upon small book stores if they fail to meet those obligations.

"Professional plaintiff's lawyers must be chomping at the bit," says Boden.

The law also includes several arbitrary exemptions. Pawn brokers and online retailers are exempt from the rules, despite the fact that those sellers are "just as likely, if not more likely, to engage in sales of fraudulent autographs," the lawsuit alleges.

The whole thing is a mess of unintended consequences. When it passed last year, the law was meant to crack down on the estimated $100 million market for fake autographed memorabilia.

"The public is being swindled on a daily basis and the numbers are huge. I just can't keep quiet when I see people I love being hurt," Hamill toldThe Los Angeles Times in 2016 as the bill was working its way through the legislature.

(Update: Who could have forseen the potential problems with a law like this? Well, Reason's Brian Doherty, for one. Last year, when the bill cleared the state legislature, Doherty warned that "it could if fully enforced squash, among other things, the practice of author book events in the state" and quoted several bookstore owners who were worried about exactly that sort of thing happening, even though government officials promised it wouldn't.)

Sure, fake memorabilia might be a real problem, but this is another of those problems that's only been made worse by getting government involved. Book stores and other small businesses that have done nothing wrong, like Petrocelli's Book Passage, now have to clear an unreasonably high burden and might lose access to high profile authors that bring customers through the front door.

Reputable retailers should take steps to authenticate autographs without government-imposed mandates, and California's new law leaves such gaping loopholes (for online sellers and pawn shops) that it's hard to see how it will really fix the problem that worries Hamill.

Well, the Jedi never did have a great relationship with legislators.

NEXT: 16-Year-Old Commits Suicide After School Cop Threatens Him with Child Porn Charges

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  1. Use the [government] Force, Luke!

    1. Still a better idea than midichlorians.

    2. Jesus. Did i just skip over the subhed, or did Boehm do a stealth edit to make me look like a jackass?

      1. Is okay. No one expects you to read that far.

      2. Did i just skip over the subhed, or did Boehm do a stealth edit to make me look like a jackass?

        Just the two options? No, “This is not the subheading your are looking for.” option?

  2. Well that ought to put the kibosh on creator appearances at comic shops. Well done as usual California state legislature.

    1. I am sure, however, that the Nevada Association of Memorabilia Dealers is absolutely thrilled.

  3. Sure, fake memorabilia is a real problem

    no it’s not.

    1. Hey, he said “might be a real problem.”

      1. the text has changed.

        1. Pray he does not alter it further.

    2. This will just cause an epidemic of fake certificates of authenticity. What we need is a government agency that issues such certificates. All autographs should be performed at an approved government facility. Something like the DMV.

      1. What we need is a government agency that issues such certificates.

        Independent of the USPTO and trademarks and copyright registration. Then, when conflicts arise between agencies and the authenticity terrorists are beating down our doors, we can create, say, a Department Of Homebrand Security? to unify the ineffectual and dilapidated factions.

        1. That should only cost, oh, a couple hundred billion a year. Subject to annual increases, of course.

  4. As a rule, I don’t buy overpriced ink blobs for their origin stories.

    1. Usually the origin stories suck donkey balls.

  5. We don’t pay actors to think.

  6. Further proof, if any were necessary, that there is no problem that cannot be made worse by virtue of government intervention

  7. I think it’s more appropriate to highlight his work as the joker. It all fits together better.

  8. Having worked in a bookstore, this law is indeed onerous. It would mean only large chain bookstores (which essentially no longer exist) could have autographed books. Gone are the days when a local author could come in and sign a bunch of books and speak to a handful of fans.

    1. Can we differentiate between selling signed books and holding book signings? At a book signing people purchase unsigned books and hope they will be signed. I don’t see how this law affects that.

      1. Matt-
        That still means that such a signature could not be resold (at least in CA), which will lead to reduced participation in such events, which will be the end of the events.

  9. Well, Luke was not present when Leia asked how many worlds slip through the Empire’s fingers by them squeezing too tightly.

    Might have learned something if he was.

    1. I have never thought much of his acting (although his Trickster is kind of fun in an over the top way), but his voice work is pretty cool.

      I think though that knowing what a douche nozzle he really is, makes me rethink how bad Episode III was:

      “From my point of view, the Jedi are evil!”

  10. …plus court costs and attorneys’ fees.

    It’s almost like these things are written by attorneys.

    1. FoE-
      Hey, there are only so many restaurants available to sue for being out of compliance with ADA. When the field is overgrazed the herd most move to new pasture.

      1. there are only so many restaurants available to sue for being out of compliance with ADA

        Oh, but the ease with which ADA regulations can be revised is part of the beauty of the law that makes it the gift that keeps on giving (to both lawyers and contractors/unions).

  11. Mark Hamill was in that godawful Force Awakens movie. His judgement should be questioned.

    1. Although I had to admire Abrams’ judgment to only have him in the movie for less than a minute, and to not give him any lines.

      1. Still doesn’t make the movie better. That shit was an abomination.

  12. “The public is being swindled on a daily basis and the numbers are huge. I just can’t keep quiet when I see people I love being hurt,” Hamill toldThe Los Angeles Times in 2016

    Then advise them not to purchase signed memorabilia.

    1. He’s got bills to pay, and the voice acting and Stars Wars checks just don’t quite cut it.

  13. “sound and fury, signifying nothing”

    Who cares?

  14. great kid. don’t get cockholstery.

  15. He was a crappy actor too.

    1. who got really really lucky

      1. What – you don’t think his career was built on the strength of Corvette Summer?

        1. He can be a one-hit wonder in the Senate too, like George Murphy. He seems to show as much interest in fucking the populace as in fucking his sister.

  16. Laws against fraud and their enforcement are proper government functions in my opinion, but the law just sounds like a shitty one.

    1. Laws against fraud and their enforcement are proper government functions in my opinion

      Yes – but we already have those.

      This law doesn’t make it illegal to sell a fake autograph – that already is illegal. This law makes you have to provide forms with all autographs certifying authenticity under the guise that those who are willing to forge signatures on books would almost certainly balk at forging signatures on government-issued forms.

      1. It’s part of a more general trend: The use of clever Jedi Mind Tricks laws and regulations to reverse the presumption of innocence. So now it’s not enough to sell a legit autograph, you have to have a government mandated certificate to show that the autograph is legit.

        Likewise, it’s not enough to be 21 to buy booze – you need ID to show that you’re over 21. It’s not enough that you have a legal right to buy a gun – you need to undergo a background check to show that. It’s not enough the the scantily clad model you’re taking photos of is a big-breasted 30-something hot mama, you have to have paperwork to show that she’s not underaged. It’s not enough to avoid lead-based paint in the wooden toys you make & sell, you have to show that the toys are lead-free. And so on and so forth, ad nauseum.

    2. Fraud is a stupid subject of the law. If harm was done, it doesn’t matter whether it was by fraud or not, in fact, fraud just strengthens the evidence. But if fraud creates no harm, then why make it illegal?

      Just typical lawyer / legislator overreach.

  17. This law’s expensive mandates . . . create a nightmare for independent booksellers that thrive on author events and book signings

    online retailers are exempt from the rules

    Connection?

    Did Hamill suddenly get concerned about this plague on the public after a conversation with Jeff Bezos?

  18. “retailers have to provide certificates of authenticity”

    /causally waves hand

    you don’t need to see our certificate of authenticity.

  19. Luke finally joined the dark side of the Force (government force).

  20. “The public is being swindled on a daily basis

    Yeah, mostly by Jerry Brown and other public servants.

  21. I thought Star Wars fans liked getting swindled.

  22. He seems to show as much interest in fucking the populace as in fucking his sister.

  23. This will just cause an epidemic of fake certificates of authenticity. What we need is a government agency that issues such certificates. All autographs should be performed at an approved government facility. Something like the DMV.

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  24. Having worked in a bookstore, this law is indeed onerous. It would mean only large chain bookstores (which essentially no longer exist) could have autographed books. Gone are the days when a local author could come in and sign a bunch of books and speak to a handful of fans.
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