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Pan Shocker:
Americans patent pan plan

By Terry Joseph
April 16, 2002

Pan While locals were led to believe the process involved in manufacturing pan had long missed any chance of being patented, two American inventors have done precisely that.

George Whitmyre, of Elkton, Maryland, and Harvey J Price, of Wilmington, Delaware have secured a US patent for “the process of formation of a Caribbean steelpan using a hydroforming press”.

The duo invented “a process for forming a Caribbean steelpan, consisting essentially of determining the shape and dimensions of a Caribbean steelpan”.

The process includes several components which are used in Trinidad and Tobago.

An extended definition contained in the patent documents also covers the full range of instruments in a conventional steel orchestra.

Although the Whitmyre/Price patent broadly relates to the manufacturing process of sinking a drumhead and attaching a skirt, its claim extends to “having a plurality of individual raised convex note-producing shapes formed therein, which produce a resonant sound when struck by a mallet (panstick)”.

The description of claim proceeds by detailing rough-tuning after heat treatment and fine-tuning after attaching a skirt to the drumhead. The procedure followed in making pans locally involves the use of 55-gallon oil drums, the heads of which are rendered concave by physical effort. The resulting pans are rough-tuned before heating and fine-tuned after the firing process.

Trinidad and Tobago Instruments Ltd (TTIL) uses a mechanised process (spin-forming) to mass manufacture the shape and imprint the notes of mini-pans, its largest single export item. TTIL managing director, Michael Cooper, yesterday said he had long attempted to ascertain whether anyone held a patent for any of the various aspects of the mechanical process. He also investigated the possibility of securing this country’s position as inventor.

“I held extensive discussions with US patent attorneys and they uniformly advised I pursue a process that was nearly impossible, one that required agreement from a number of artisans, people who weren’t likely to agree on design or details of the manufacturing process.

“Even before that time, in fact, since the 1980s, a team from this country had been investigating the very hydroforming process and even went to Sweden to complete experiments there, but it all turned out to be pretty expensive research and the exercise was abandoned for lack of funding.

“But to prevent other people from using those parts of the Whitmyre/Price process that are parallel to some of our procedures would be difficult,” Cooper said. “I actually met Whitmyre in 1999 and he told me what he was doing. However, this is not a done deal. These developments can almost always be challenged.”

Pan Trinbago president Patrick Arnold is equally concerned over the possibility of any part of the pan-manufacturing process being registered as the exclusive intellectual property of Whitmyre and Price.

“We have long felt that one day a problem of this kind might surface and as recently as 1999 we sought fresh advice from government’s finest legal minds on this same matter,” Arnold said yesterday.

“The State’s experts said it was too late to pursue security of intellectual property rights as inventor of the process and although one member of the legal team had a dissenting view, her opinion was overruled and the initiative was put to rest,” he said.

In a 1999 interview with this reporter, attorney Sharon Le Gall, a member of the legal team that investigated the Pan Trinbago request, cited countries where the time elapsed between invention and claim was far longer.

Even before that episode, Pan Trinbago had been pursuing the possibility of a patent for pan. At the first World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) meeting held here in 1983, then vice-president of Pan Trinbago, Nestor Sullivan, asked the experts gathered whether Trinidad and Tobago could patent pan.

“They explained we would have to patent the process and that would have been arduous,” Sullivan said, “because it involved every detail, including how many times the hammer should hit a particular note when tuning and with what force.

“What it sounds like now,” said Sullivan, “is that we should have gone through all the trouble then because it might require some very intricate and expensive legal manoeuvres to secure our position at this time.”

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