It ain’t me babe: Bob Dylan apologises for using a machine to autograph books

<span>Photograph: Christopher Polk/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Bob Dylan has issued a rare public statement to apologise for his “error in judgment”, amid controversy over his use of a machine to autograph special copies of his new book that had been advertised as “hand-signed”.

The book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, features the legendary singer-songwriter’s commentary on tracks by other artists and was released in early November, with a limited run of 900 “hand-signed” editions sold for $599 each. All copies came with a letter of authenticity from the publisher Simon & Schuster.

But as buyers began receiving their copies, many shared photographs of their books online – and quickly realised they featured identical signatures.

In a statement, the 81-year-old musician said all of his signatures “over the years” had been hand-signed.

Related: The Philosophy of Modern Song by Bob Dylan review – essays on songcraft

“However, in 2019 I had a bad case of vertigo and it continued into the pandemic years,” he wrote. “It takes a crew of five working in close quarters with me to help enable these signing sessions, and we could not find a safe and workable way to complete what I needed to do while the virus was raging.

“So, during the pandemic, it was impossible to sign anything and the vertigo didn’t help. With contractual deadlines looming, the idea of using an autopen was suggested to me, along with the assurance that this kind of thing is done ‘all the time’ in the art and literary worlds.

“Using a machine was an error in judgment and I want to rectify it immediately. I’m working with Simon & Schuster and my gallery partners to do just that.”

Simon & Schuster apologised for the controversy last week, and offered refunds to any purchasers who were not happy.

“As it turns out, the limited edition books do contain Bob’s original signature, but in a penned replica form,” they wrote on Twitter.

The validity of Dylan’s signatures on his art prints – many of which are currently retailing for more than £12,000 – has also been called into question. Castle Fine Art, a UK art retailer that sells prints of Dylan’s paintings, said they had been “entirely unaware of the use of autopen” and found that only two lines of prints – both released this year – had been signed with an autopen instead of by hand.

“We can confirm that all other editions preceding these releases were individually hand-signed by Bob Dylan himself,” they wrote in a statement, offering refunds to buyers – on the condition they return their initial certificates of authenticity “for one reflecting the autopen signature”.

The autopen was first patented in the USA in 1803, and allowed a machine to duplicate a person’s handwritten letters. The US president Thomas Jefferson was an early proponent, purchasing one autopen for the White House and another for his house in Monticello.

While several other presidents used the system, the White House denied the existence or use of the autopen until Lyndon B Johnson allowed the device to be photographed in the White House, with pictures appearing on the cover of the National Enquirer with the headline The Robot that Sits in for the President.

In 2011, Barack Obama became the first US president to pass legislation with an autopen signature.

But usage of the device by celebrities has continued to draw controversy. In 2020, Ozzy Osbourne was accused of using autopen for a limited number of “hand-signed” copies of his album Ordinary Man. Dolly Parton was also accused of using autopen to sign limited editions of her book Songteller: My Life in Lyrics.

Last year, music legend Van Morrison’s management denied he had signed copies of his record, Latest Record Project Volume 1, with an autopen after fans raised concerns. Meanwhile, Sinéad O’Connor threw book retailers into chaos after admitting to using a stamp to inscribe her memoir, Rememberings.

“The books which are signed, I signed using a signature stamp as I was not in a position to hand-write my name 10 thousand times, which is how many I was asked to sign,” O’Connor said at the time.

The writer Margaret Atwood conceived of a slightly different machine in 2004 called the LongPen, which enabled authors to sign books remotely. The author can see an image of the page they are signing, write on a touch-sensitive screen, and a robot arm will sign the book hundreds or thousands of miles away with a normal pen.

While the technology failed during a demonstration in London in 2006, the LongPen was used by Conrad Black when he was under arrest to virtually attend a book signing event without leaving his home.