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From Antitrust Law Daily, December 4, 2015

Online retailer, executive charged in price fixing conspiracy

By Jeffrey May, J.D.

The Department of Justice Antitrust Division has disclosed a second charge in its ongoing investigation into price fixing in the online wall décor industry through the use of algorithm-based pricing software. Yesterday, a one-count indictment, which was originally filed on August 27, was unsealed in the federal district court in San Francisco against Daniel William Aston and Trod Ltd. (U.S. v. Aston, Case No. 3:15-cr-00419-WHO).

According to the indictment, between September 2013 and January 2014, Aston and Trod participated in a conspiracy to fix the prices of certain posters sold online through Amazon.com, Inc.’s Amazon Marketplace. They allegedly used commercially-available algorithm-based pricing software to set the prices. The software collects competitor pricing information for a specific product and applies certain pricing rules, the government noted. In addition, the defendants allegedly discussed poster prices with co-conspirators and agreed to adopt specific pricing algorithms with the goal of coordinating prices.

Aston resides in the United Kingdom, and Trod, which does business as Buy 4 Less, Buy For Less, and Buy-For-Less-Online, is a U.K.-based company. While Aston was allegedly involved in the conspiracy, he was a part owner and director for Buy 4 Less and was actively involved in the sale of posters through the company, the Justice Department alleged.

Earlier case. This is the second charge arising out of the government's ongoing investigation. In April, David Topkins, a former executive of an e-commerce seller of posters, prints, and framed art—which was not identified by the government—was charged for his role in the conspiracy. Topkins agreed to plead guilty for conspiring to fix the prices of posters sold online, to cooperate in the government's investigation, and to pay a $20,000 criminal fine. Topkins was reportedly an executive at Art.Com Inc. during the period of the alleged conspiracy. He is credited with founding the poster website Poster Revolution, which was acquired by Art.com in 2012. Topkins is no longer with the company.

Antitrust chief's statement. In announcing the indictment, William Baer, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice, issued a warning that the Antitrust Division will continue to prosecute conspiracies that “subvert online competition.”

“This company and its owner conspired to fix the prices for poster art and consumers unknowingly suffered the consequences,” Baer said. “It doesn’t matter whether price-fixers operate from an office in California or a warehouse in England. We will continue to prosecute conspiracies that subvert online competition.”

Companies: Trod, Ltd.; Art.com Inc.; Amazon.com, Inc.

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