California passed Assembly Bill no. 1570, a well-intended bill meant to stop the flood of counterfeit signed items, but that will devastate the market in its current incarnation. Before I go further, let me disclose the obvious: I am not an attorney, and can not give legal advice. This article is my understanding of the bill based on my research and my experience with the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) for my day job of making and selling custom clothing items for adults and children.
Like so many bills, especially in California, this bill means well, but crosses what’s reasonable right into the territory of WTF, and will disproportionately affect small independent booksellers and authors. This bill also affects sellers of sports and film memorabilia in the exact same ways, but my focus is on authors for what should be a very obvious reason.
As of now, any item sold for more than $5 must accompany a certificate of authenticity from the dealer. Pawn brokers who selling items obtained through loans that weren’t paid AND who don’t claim to know anything about the items being sold (specifically, very specifically, pawn brokers have to claim to be clueless and giving loans for things they know nothing about, which is going to be none), people who sell items and then sign them, and online sellers whose primary business is not signed memorabilia, are the exceptions to being caught in the “dealer” label. Otherwise a COA is mandated, which must include:
1) Item description and who signed it.
2) Purchase price and date of sale, or a be accompanied by a separate written bill of sale.
Sell at San Diego ComiCon, and you better take a booklet of those carbon-copy receipts.
3) Disclose if the seller witnessed the signature, and if so, the date and address. If the seller did not, then the information must include who did.
Here’s where it starts to get tricky. A lot of items already on the market are separated from this information. If a store has a book authenticated as signed by Stephen King, this information may not be available. Do you think the state will include “we don’t know” on the certificate? This seems to be intended for when a seller obtains a signed item by going to a convention and having someone sign something they already paid for. But intentions don’t matter.
It also has a larger problem, addressed below:
4) If the item was obtained from a third party instead of the seller or agent witnessing the signature in person, the name and address of the third party must be included on the certificate.
Not everyone wants their addresses publicly disclosed. If I sign a stack of books for a friend to sell at a convention or fundraiser in California, there’s no way this side of hell I’m going to disclose my address. How many authors, actors, sports players, etc., are going to be okay giving the world their public addresses? If I give a book to one of my best friends, and she sells it to a store that sells signed books, why should she have to disclose her address?
On top if this, this information must be kept on file by the seller for seven years. Even if a seller has an address to put on the certificate, writing up these certificates and their file-copies is a lot of extra time and work, especially for small-time sellers who are often already working to the bone just to sell enough to pay the basic bills, and will sting even harder charity organizations and volunteer-run groups, as well as little groups of authors at conventions who group their books together for someone else to sell for them. I’ve only done a few book-signings/sellings, and each one so far has had the books pre-signed on a table with someone else doing the selling while the authors mingled. Sometimes sellers are sitting at the table with a line of people buying the books and then having them signed, but often enough, someone else is helping do the actual selling of items already signed.
Now we can’t know yet how stringent the new rules may be enforced. The state could decide to turn a blind eye to sellers are conventions who have other books grouped together that someone else is selling for them. The state might hand-wave an event selling donated signed items. The state might decide it’s not worth pursuing certificates lacking personal information. But it’s California, land of Prop. 65 warnings that require any item or public location that has ANY amount of one of over 800 chemicals “known to cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm” to post signs all over the place, and that has been so stringently enforced that school buildings will post the warnings to cover their butts for the traces of asbestos in the top of the attic or the brackets within the walls that might have had lead in them, even though those things pose literally no harm without being accessible and disturbed, and has resulted in pretty much everyone shrugging their collective shoulders and deciding that everything will kill us, so why bother worrying about it, before enjoying some arsenic-tinted lead paint chips.
But given California’s history of taking consumer-protection to extreme levels right on over the bell-curve and into territory that becomes as detrimental as no oversight, booksellers selling signed books may want to think twice, and authors and buyers may want to start conducting transfers and signing stacks of books at the local Starbucks. There should be one on a corner near you.
Or you could decide that all signed items are to be sold for $4.99 or under, or sign bookplate stickers as “free” things with item-purchase, and in the meantime, take Scott Brown’s and Bill Petrocelli’s leads and start contacting California representatives. After all, with some tweaks this bill could make sense:
1) Raise the sell-price limit for all items to $250
2) Perhaps leave the level around $50 for items most commonly forged (celebrity-signed photos are often just high-quality copies, and countless football helmets are cheap souvenir helmets with decal-transfers…and I admit I have, unknowingly, been on the buying end of both, and in California!)
3) Entirely exempt mandates that certificates be written up for items sold when the signer is in the vicinity who can verify the signature on request (though sellers could certainly still provide certificates)
4) For certificates given to consumers, leave off addresses when those address are residential, even if the dealer’s copy includes that information
Those simple three changes would come close to striking a balance to protect booksellers and indie authors, as well as help curb the flow of the items most likely to be forged. But as written right now, AB. 1570 will do more harm to independent sellers and authors that it will protect buyers.