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Free Minds & Free Markets

Mark Hamill vs. Autographed Memorabilia: The Revenge of the Dark Side

A California-law championed by the Star Wars actor hurts booksellers and tramples on free speech.

Bill Petrocelli doesn't look like someone routinely engaged in illegal activity by the jovial smile on his face as he greets customers around the San Francisco location of Book Passage, a small chain of stores that he co-owns in the Bay Area.

Since the beginning of 2017, however, he's been routinely violating a California's law regulating autographed items. Small bookstore owners like Petrocelli now must adhere to a laundry list of requirements that threaten their livelihoods and restrict First Amendment rights.

"This law—it's like dropping a bomb," says Petrocelli, "it's terrible." Book Passage holds about 800 events each year featuring the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Caitlyn Jenner, and Ozzy Osborne. "We really kind of thrive on that," Petrocelli says. "I think it's the best part of the book business, when the author and the reader have a get together in your store and have a little discussion. It's wonderful."

The law requires dealers to provide a certificate of authenticity for every signed book, which includes a description of the item, the identity of the person who signed it, the date, time and place of the sale; the dealer's name and address; information about a witnesses to the signing; and information about a previous owner, if the item was obtained secondhand. And they have to retain that information for seven years.

"It's a certificate of authenticity requirement on steroids," says Anastasia Boden, an attorney at the Pacific Legal Foundation, who is helping Petrocelli sue the state over the law. "Anything that requires extra paperwork is going to drive up the cost of doing business."

Any violations of the requirements means anyone could sue the bookseller for up to ten times the cost of the book. The seller could also get hit with get court costs, attorney fees, interest, expert witness fees, and any relief the court finds appropriate.

Petrocelli says that beyond the potential cost, the law is also an invasion of his customers' privacy because he must record and store their names and addresses for an extended period.

"It's children who come to a lot of events to see their favorite author, want their book signed, and if we are going to have to go through every record and keep track of every child that buys a book...it's just crazy," Petrocelli says.

But the law wasn't supposed to apply to booksellers. "[It] originated as any law does, and that is with somebody with a lot of political clout and a sob story," says Boden. In this case, it was Mark Hamill, the actor famous for playing Luke Skywalker.

Boden says Hamill approached the legislature after seeing faked versions of his autograph being sold to duped customers online for hundreds of dollars. He teamed up with former State Assemblywoman Ling Ling Chang (R-Diamond Bar) to expand a pre-existing law applying to autographs. It flew through the California legislature and was signed by Gov. Brown last September.

"Then booksellers kind of got word of this and looked at it and thought, 'oh my God, this could apply to autographed books, right on the face of it,'" says Petrocelli.

Chang declined our interview request, but did tell Reason in an email that she stands by the bill. She also pointed to a letter issued by her office in December 2016 stating that the law doesn't apply to booksellers because its wording states an autograph dealer must be "principally" in the business of selling autographed items in order for the law to apply.

The attorney Boden says the word "principally" here is vague, and arguably Petrocelli is principally engaged in selling autographed books. In addition to holding hundreds of events with autograph signings every year, Book Passage even has a first edition autographed-book club. It's the kind of offering that's allowed Book Passage to hold its own against online retailers.

Boden says the the autograph law's penalties are so high that they may scare people away from engaging in what should be protected speech. "Signatures are protected by the First Amendment."

A bill that was introduced to fix these problems, Assembly Bill 228, tries to exclude booksellers by raising the price of the commodity being signed from five dollars to 50. But that doesn't help Petrocelli.

"He sells books that are worth over $50 all the time," says Boden.

A.B. 228 also limits the autograph law to sports and entertainment memorabilia. But Petrocelli has entertainment and sports books for sale. Olympic gold medal winning track star Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner) recently promoted her biography at a Book Passage event.

"Is the Caitlyn Jenner biography a sports book or not? It kind of depends on how you think about it and if you have to make that kind of decision on every single book in the store it will drive you crazy," says Petrocelli.

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  • Charles Easterly||

    I enjoyed your last line, Mr. Detrick.

    Yet... How can I be certain that it is "an original"?

  • DenverJ||

    Has Mark Hamill done anything since Return of the Jedi. He's a washed up has-been and his autographs should be worthless.

  • Don't look at me.||

    They are, that's why he got upset. Ego.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    It's absolutely shocking to me that CA would pass a bad law that strangles commerce. It's almost enough to make me lose faith in Gov. Brown's dedication to free market principles.

  • Charles Easterly||

    Has Mark Hamill done anything since Return of the Jedi

    Denver J,
    It seems to me that he has.

  • Wasteland Wanderer||

    That, and he's done a ton of voice acting. He's pretty highly regarded by Batman fans for his role as the Joker in the animated films.

  • n00bdragon||

    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm000.....fn_al_nm_3 Are you kidding? Mark Hammil has been one of the busiest (voice) actors in the last thirty years. Yes, he does a lot of Star Wars and Batman stuff because of his breakout roles in those franchises, but he's also been in just about everything else.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Yeah, he's huge in voice work. One of the few acting areas where you can get fat as shit and still get lots of work.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Washed up? At least he bathes!

  • SlyJeff||

    Yes, he's done the voice of the Joker in a few different formats, and very acclaimed for it. Many consider him the definitive joker.

  • jelabarre||

    He played Cocknocker in "Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back"...

  • patches44||

    He's mostly been a voice actor. One of the most successful in the business. Among other things he is the defining voice and performance of the Batman villain The Joker, who he has played for about 25 years now across at least a dozen well known popular and long running TV series and even more well known video games. People may think of Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson as the Joker, but when they think of The Joker it is Hamill's voice they hear. (Just as the most defining actor for Batman is Kevin Conroy.)

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Mark Hamill sure looks awful in that picture of him standing in front of that poster.

  • Gluteus Maximilian||

    C'mon, booksellers. You didn't think that California was going to have any sympathy for you greedy, scheming capitalist swine, did you?

  • ||

    Ha ha, Commiefornia is at it again.

    Happy 4th bitches!

  • plusafdotcom||

    Just a wild and crazy free-market feedback idea for California booksellers....

    Call a moratorium on book-signings for some part of the year, so no authors can use your premises to promote their books.

    As described in the article, authors have virtually no skin in the game, as financial damage to them by forgeries damages only the buyers of them.

    Hm? Maybe they'll join the booksellers to eliminate the extreme and ineffective measures in that bill?

  • patches44||

    I sympathize with the bookseller. There is however an easy fix for his problem. A fast, effective and fairly low cost business solution. GET THE FRAK OUT OF KALIFORNIA! Move anywhere else. The costs savings from lowered taxes and less regulation alone will bring a profit.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Mark Ham-mill? The mystical snowflake? So he and Chan-Ling Fance have bought their own personal butthurt law, paid for with royalties cash. Now let's see them enforce it! --red light sabre powers up--

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