Ministry Moves to Protect Steel Pan

From Trinidad & Tobago Government News

April 20, 2011 2:38 pm: The Intellectual Property Office (IPO) of the Ministry of Legal Affairs (MLA) has moved swiftly to defend against another attempt in the United States of America to secure patent rights for the steel pan.

It has recently come to the attention of the MLA, through attorneys in the United States that a challenge was made since October against a previous ruling which preserved the right of pan manufacturers to make and distribute the national instrument. If successful, the challenge would place a legal bar against manufacture and export of the steel pan into the United States.

Immediately upon learning of this development however, the Minister of Legal Affairs, Honourable Prakash Ramadhar, consulted with the Attorney General and gave approval for lawyers in the US to file a defense with the United States Patents and Trademarks Office (USPTO).

The Ministry is advised by its attorneys that the issues raised in this recent challenge are substantially the same as those which the USPTO had ruled on previously – in favour of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago.

The Honourable Minister gives his assurance that the Government and the MLA will continue to do all within their respective powers to protect the legitimate Intellectual Property Rights of its citizens and the right of everyone to enjoy this country’s musical gift to the world. The MLA will continue to work closely with its foreign lawyers to defend this recent challenge and is confident of victory.


A more detailed background to this recent development is contained in the accompanying document below Appendix One:


Ardent steelpan technology fans will recall a challenge mounted in 2006-2008 by the then Government of Trinidad and Tobago against two patents granted by the United States Patents and Trademarks Office (USPTO). One patent was entitled “Cycle of Fifths Steel Pan” (US patent No. 6,750,386). It was applied for on August 26, 2002 in the name of Trevor King and granted on June 15, 2004. It was the prevailing opinion at the time that the invention claimed the same arrangement of notes on what is now considered the standardized steelpan invented by Mr. Anthony Williams in the 1950’s but run in the opposite direction. The invention was thought to have lacked the criterion of inventive step or non-obviousness in the same way running the notes on a piano backward would be considered not to be inventive. However, after the State requested an inter partes reexamination request, the patent was revoked.

The other patent under challenge at the time was entitled “Production of a Caribbean Steelpan” (US patent No. 6,212,772) that was filed in the name of Whitmyre and Price and applied for on June 23, 1999 and granted on April 10, 2001. This patent was upheld by the USPTO due to differences in clamping and operating pressure which rendered it inventive over previous technology.

So where is the zombie? The owner of the “Cycle of Fifths Steel Pan” has successfully petitioned the USPTO to re-open the closed proceedings and is asking the USPTO to set aside the revocation. The Government was informed recently that this process began since October 2010 but was informed via former counsel only recently. The Government has since renewed its engagement with the firm that represented it previously to examine the petition.

As the patent is out of the way presently, any steelpan with that configuration of notes can be exported to the US or manufactured in the US. The risk of this petition to revive the patent is the curtailment of those freedoms – such pans will not be able to be imported into the US or manufactured in the US.

The conclusion of the matter was to have put Anthony Williams’ arrangement of notes in fourths and fifths back into the public domain for all to use freely. Many aspects of the traditional steelpan are not presently patentable as they have been out in the public domain for too long. However, it does not prevent innovators and inventors from anywhere in the world from improving on the instrument itself and the processes used in its manufacture from being invented and patented. This we have seen with the “Bore-pan” and the more recent “G-pan”.

This Government has been and continues to be deeply committed to ensuring, through the protection of intellectual property in its various forms, that our steelpan, our artistes and the livelihood of all those who are dependent upon the fruits of intellectual property are well protected and that there is fair use of all publicly available steelpan technology. The public is assured that the Government will continue to do all that it can to respond to this renewed petition to revive the patent. The same firm that represented the Government in successfully having the patent revoked in 2008 has already formulated a response to this petition and will continue to assist the Government in looking after the interests of Trinidad and Tobago in this matter.


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  • Hindsight is 20-20, but we must remember where the pan came from, and I'm sure that the last thing on the minds of the young men who experimented and created the pan was applying for patents in a US court.

    I'm pretty certain that few if any of us who were around in the fifties and sixties would have given any thought to patent law as it relates to pan, and we must remember this before criticizing the likes of Tony Williams and other pan pioneers from the early days.

    We've gotten a lot more sophisticated since then.

  • I smell a rat here.  Yes Trevor King is a Trinidadian, but who stands to gain the most from this move?  Since Trevor King doesn't have the ability to collect - the only benefit is to block the sales of Trinidad pans and Trinidad styled instruments in the US to educational organizations. 


  • Lots of politricks, semantics and gesticulating.  Whilst I arguably agree those particular patents are baskets that doh hold water, the irony is that the IP property rights behind e.g. the patented e-pan invetion was mimicked and usurped by the very self-same people (with home-made collusion/connections), so they are hypocrites and tricksters.  What could and should still be done is to patent the traditional steelpan so further innovations technologies can be built upon the protected prior art. which recognized the true and real innovators of the musical instrument and art form. The way they have done things is to place the cart in front of the horse, and that's a recipe for commesse... Respect...
  • The Steel Pan Must be declared one of our National Emblems and National Instrument by an Act of Parliment.
    • Hameed, I whole-heartedly agree with you.  The Cultural Ministry in all of the preceeding governments went to sleep as far as the Pan is concerned.  How can you invent something like the pan and then do nothing about it despite the masses were asking you to make certain that it was claimed by your culture ?. From what I am seeing Japan and Switzerland begins to come aggressive as far as the pan is concerned. Watch out Trinidad.
  • This is a no-brainer. The world over knows that we are the Creators of the Steel Pan/ Steel Drum.  Those U.S Vampires thought they could  suck our  Culture for their own use.  Even though we did not patent our product in a timely manner, we are still the owners of the invention of the Steel Drum. They are ignorant of the fact that it took Blood, Sweat and Tears to bring the Instrument to what it is today, and no piece of Paper presented in any Court can take away the validity of our Invention. They must also know that this Creation was a Special 'Gift of Almighty God to the people of Sweet Trinidad & Tobago'  I hope they dont think that were are fools. We would fight to the last man to protect our Heritage of our Blessed Steel Pan.
    • It has nothing to do with what "the world knows." Ask Nikola Tesla. The question remains, why have Tony Williams and others not patented (or attempted to patent) their work and why do we wait for someone else to take action before we make a step in the right direction? History is littered with great inventors who failed to capitalize on their inventions which were then stolen by others for a profit. America is all about the dollar, and if you don't protect your ideas and your assets you can bet your life someone will be there to take it for a profit.

      Yes it is a "special gift from the almighty" but the almighty also talked about the importance of preparation and maximizing your talent. There needs to be some mechanism in T&T where inventors (like the steel band men) can be navigated through the patent process which can be exhaustive and intimidating to some.

      • Dr Anthony patent his spiderweb pan and when he brought up the idea to the government they turned him down he was only able to patent the spiderweb he has the original copy of the patent 

      • Agreed!!!  My brother (R.I.P.) was an inventor, ardent founding member and supporter of IATT > PIATT.  He lobbied hard to see an Incubation Centre created with private/public funding where Trinis from any socio-economic level benefit from a place where they could research and develop ideas under strict non-disclosure protocols to protect their Intellectual Property rights.  It was an uphill struggle.
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