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.
There is one other bill that could help Petrocelli because it excludes books from being covered by the autograph law: Senate Bill 579. According to Boden it isn't going anywhere. "The one that is getting all the publicity is A.B. 228 which is backed by Barnes and Noble and the antiquarian booksellers," she says. "Meanwhile this little bill in the Senate that actually would do some good…doesn't seem to be getting any attention at all."
Produced by Paul Detrick. Shot by Alex Manning.