Import copies raise cries on US back roads

Do you stay awake at night, worried about the coming Japanese assault on the US computer industry? Do you keep careful watch on monthly auto import figures, just in case Toyota tries to sneak in more than its limit? Have you ever worn a ''Boycott EC Steel'' T-shirt?

Now, for those who've made international trade battles a spectator sport, some new developments: The clothespin industry is fighting back, and the Rubik's Cube folks are screaming ''foul.''

As far as import-export issues go, it's the big boys who get most of the attention. First it was autos, now it's steel. Seven domestic steelmakers, in suits filed Jan. 11 with the Commerce Department and International Trade Commission, have charged competitors in 11 countries with unfair trade practices. US Steel fired the first shot on Monday morning by dropping off some 400 boxes of documents for the ITC to peruse.

But such mammoth undertakings are not the only side to US trade policy. The government deals daily with the problems of far smaller industries. At least one ITC investigator, for instance, went from working on the auto case to investigating imports of smoked herring. Clothespins snap back, so to speak

In 1978 hard times were staring West Paris, Maine, straight in the face. With 125 workers, the largest employer in town was the family-run Penley Corporation, a clothespin manufacturer. And at that time cheap clothespins from the Far East were grabbing almost 60 percent of the US market.

The domestic industry - five small companies in Maine and Vermont - was ''headed for its last roundup,'' in the words of an expert observer.

Enter the ITC. After investigating the situation, the commission recommended protection for the besieged industry. And in 1979 President Carter limited imports to 2 million gross annually for each of three price categories.

The limits expire on Feb. 22, 1982. Two weeks ago, the International Trade Commission released a report to the President on clothespins, recommending the quotas be extended for another three years.

''The quota system has helped us over the past three years,'' says Richard Penley, vice-president of Penley Corporation. ''We requested it be extended so we could complete our capital expenditure program.''

American makers claim their product - mostly a spring-type pin made with New England hardwood - is a ''Cadillac'' compared with the cheaper imports from Taiwan and Hong Kong. And, after the planned installation of new equipment, they say prices will be competitive with imports.

''(The industry has) made tremendous strides,'' says an ITC source who requested anonymity. ''They've plowed all profits back into the company.''

President Reagan, despite his free trade penchant, may find it difficult to ignore the ITC recommendation. The clothespin industry is politically appealing - most manufacturers are small, Ma and Pa operations with a New England entrepreneurial spirit.

''The commissioners were unanimous in their decision,'' says the ITC source. ''They really fell for these guys.'' The pirate cubemakers

''Unless you have been living in a Quonset hut,'' says Samuel L. Cohen, senior vice-president of Ideal Toy, ''you must be aware that Rubik's Cube is the most popular puzzle ever made.''

What you may not know is that Ideal claims a lot of other cube makers are infringing on its territory. The toy company bought rights to the maddening puzzle from its Hungarian inventor, and pays a royalty on each cube it sells. In December Ideal filed a formal complaint with the ITC, charging 97 companies - most in Taiwan - with violating a ''common law trademark'' and illegally imitating Ideal's ''trade dress.''

Ideal hopes to obtain an exclusion order, which would prohibit illegal cubes from entering the country, as well as a cease-and-desist order to stop domestic pirating.

''We spent millions to popularize it,'' says Mr. Cohen. ''Our cubes have distinctive color patterns and packaging. Pirates copy it exactly. If their cubes used numbers, or pictures of flowers - I don't think we could stop those.''

The ITC has agreed that something illegal may be afoot. On Dec. 16, the commission ordered an investigation into the problem.

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