WASHINGTON - The Commerce Department is investigating a charge that London-based Robobond Ltd. copied and dumped less-expensive, polystyrene picture frame profile designs into the U.S. market, commercially injuring Marley Mouldings Inc. of Marion, Va. The two companies are awaiting a ruling on whether Robobond's English-made plastic photograph frames are a commercial commodity being dumped in the United States at an unfair discount, or, as Robobond contends, part of a growing, high-fashion artistic picture frame medium that defies comparison in America on the basis of price.
The Commerce Department's International Trade Administration plans to conclude its anti-dumping duty investigation by Feb. 15.
According to a Sept. 29 letter to the parties involved, the International Trade Commission will decide by Oct. 23 ``whether there is a reasonable indication that imports of foam extruded PVC and polystyrene framing stock from the United Kingdom are causing material injury ... to a U.S. industry.''
ITC first heard testimony in the case Sept. 29. This week the opponents are scheduled to file informational briefs, which will include proprietary manufacturing and marketing information.
Plastics make up about a third of the $2.5 billion American mass-marketed picture frame business, up from less than 10 percent only a few years ago. Once a specialty of woodcarvers and carpenters, the focus for the picture frame industry has shifted from wood and metal to plastic.
The battle for mass-market picture frames, which ITC testimony noted may make up to $1.6 billion of the total picture frame market, is being waged in large discount marketing chains.
Wood still dominates the custom frame market.
Marley, a division of London-based manufacturing concern Marley plc, and Robobond, affiliated with the British company D&J Simons plc of London, together produce 80 percent of the PS foamextruded frame stock sold in the United States.
Marley plc bought the Virginia operation in 1990 from D&G Plastics.
Robobond lawyer William Silverman, of the Washington law office of Rogers and Wells, led a group of five Robobond customers who testified that the Robo-bond products are not interchangeable with Marley's and that the two companies' products could not be compared on the basis of price.
Robobond's customers were also highly critical of the Marley product's alleged lack of quality during the time in question.
Robobond customers also contended that the company changed its frame fashions every six months, in keeping with customer desires, whereas Marley continued to produce dated designs over several years.
But Art Ramey, Marley Mouldings executive vice president for sales, marketing and distribution, said Robobond brought out its copies of Marley designs in 1991.
Subsequently, he noted, Marley's share of the market dropped steadily through 1994, then rapidly in the first quarter of 1995.
Ramey said Robobond undercut Marley's price between 29 and 51 percent and effectively blocked Marley from promoting its newest offerings in the highly competitive mass picture frame market.
Ramey said that virtually all of Robobond's customers were former Marley customers.
Ramey added: ``This isn't Simons vs. Marley. It isn't Marley suing anyone. This is the government investigating a dumping petition on behalf of this industry.''