Autograph law in California highlights government failure
by The Oklahoman Editorial Board
THERE'S a reason so many citizens are skeptical of politicians' promises that government can solve societal woes. Even when politicians try to address simple problems, their “solutions” can prove both ineffective and counterproductive.
This is proving true once again in California, where lawmakers decided a government response was required to keep people from selling items with fraudulent celebrity autographs.
Unlike some government programs, in this instance lawmakers actually targeted a problem that truly exists. Actor Mark Hamill of “Star Wars” fame, in particular, has highlighted this issue. Via Twitter, Hamill will even let fans know if his signature on an item is real or forged. He has estimated that 50 percent to 90 percent of the time, the signature is a forgery.
In response, the California legislature passed a law that took effect this year. It requires that any autographed item worth $5 or more must include a certificate of authenticity, including the name and address of the dealer, date and purchase price, the identities of any associated third parties, whether the item was part of a limited edition, and more. If an item is autographed at an event such as a book signing, the certificate must list the date and place of the event, whether the dealer was present, and be signed by a witness. Sellers must keep that information for seven years.
Failure to comply with the law's numerous paperwork requirements can result in fines of up to 10 times the amount of damages, plus attorney fees and court costs.
But the law exempts pawnbrokers and online marketplaces. So, in effect, the law is directed primarily at bookstores that have in-store author signings — which are one of the main tools brick-and-mortar stores now employ to compete with online sellers.
Bill Petrocelli, co-owner of Book Passage shops in Marin County and San Francisco, has filed a lawsuit challenging the law.
“The cost of record-keeping and major liability threaten to make book signings impossible, and stores such as mine do not want to engage in the massive intrusion on customer privacy that is mandated by the law's reporting rules,” Petrocelli told The Washington Times.
Anastasia Boden, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is representing Petrocelli, notes the law will do little to deter actual fraud because it targets only the venues where committing such fraud is almost impossible.
“The book is being signed right in front of the patron,” Boden said. “There is so little chance of fraud in this context. And the patrons pay face value. They don't pay a premium for the signature.”
In short, to combat fraudulent celebrity autographs, California lawmakers imposed a large paperwork burden on the businesses least likely to commit that fraud, while exempting transactions where such fraud is far easier, such as online auctions. In the process, lawmakers are financially harming business owners who don't commit fraud, while allowing those who do to continue unmolested.
No doubt, people should not be defrauded. But the counterproductive results generated by overreaching politicians in this instance are not atypical of government efforts elsewhere. In many instances, more good comes from allowing people to use common sense than from deploying the clunky machinery of government.