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UWI dean and funder in patent clash over steelpan rights

The University of the West Indies has expressed concern over a patent dispute between the dean of its faculty of engineering, Brian Copeland, and the government of Trinidad and Tobago.

Research Caribbean has learnt that administrators at other regional research institutions are also re-examining their Intellectual Property (IP) policies and monitoring the developments closely because of its implications for research funding and their relationship with researchers.

The Trinidad and Tobago government this month began a legal process aimed at establishing ownership of two patents of electronic steelband instruments registered in Copeland’s name.

Trinidad and Tobago attorney general Anand Ramlogan, who is himself a UWI law graduate, claimed that the two products are the outcome of state-funded research, that their patents belong to the state, and that the UWI IP policy process was bypassed in processing the patents.

The government invested some $35 million in the Steelpan Initiative Project (SIP) at the UWI Steelpan Research Laboratory housed in the faculty headed by Copeland.

The Genesis Pan (G-Pan) and the amplified Percussive Harmonic Instrument (PHI) keyboard are patented in the name of Copeland and three associates. Steelpan is a percussion type musical instrument originally designed out of metal oil barrels in backyards in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s. Its music is widely recognised as typical of the Caribbean. The G-Pan involves an increase in the range of musical notes possible on the traditional steelpan, while the PHI keyboard involves synthesising steelpan sounds with a range of sounds from other instruments through a digital mechanism on the pan. Both of these build on the conventional steelpan prototype.

Copeland owns a private company, Panadigm, which is manufacturing the synthesisers.

A study done at Canada’s York University predicted that electronic steelband percussion instruments would be worth millions of dollars, according to media reports.

Copeland, who has denied any wrongdoing to journalists, is head of the UWI department of electrical and computer engineering, where the steelpan laboratory is housed.

He is a graduate of the University of the West Indies as well as Canadian and American universities. In 2008, he received the country’s highest award, the Order of Trinidad and Tobago, for his development of the steelpan.

Copeland was named as one of the inventors of the electronic steelband instruments in the patent documents issued by the Trinidad and Tobago Intellectual Property Office.

According to the these and the European Patent Office 2009 documents, another inventor is Marcel Byron, who is both Chief Technical Officer at Panadigm Innovations, as well as being the chief research technician at the UWI St Augustine campus’ department of electrical and computer engineering.

Other named inventors are Keith Maynard (one of the original steelpan researchers at CARIRI, the Caribbean Industrial Research Institute, in Trinidad in the 1980s) and steelband musician Earle Philip.

Neither the government of Trinidad and Tobago, nor the university are listed in any of the Caribbean or global patent documents seen by Research Caribbean as an inventor or proprietor.

However, the rights were assigned to the government of Trinidad and Tobago, according to the UWI engineering department’s website under its music innovation sub-section.

What assigned rights involved is also being dabated as Peter Taylor, a UWI graduate in economics and law said the interests of the Government and people of Trinidad and Tobago were secured through the assignment of rights, although the patents stand in the name of Copeland and his associates. Taylor was the former minister of legal affairs (8 November, 2007 – 25 May, 2010) which managed the portfolio of the local intellectual property rights office.

“The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering continues to lead local research and innovation in the area of the steel pan,’’ The faculty website states.

It stated the G-Pan was registered or had a patent pending with 61 organisations, including the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), the European Patent Office, the United States Patent and Trademark Office and the Intellectual Property Office of Trinidad and Tobago.

‘‘Professor Copeland is commercialising this invention in Panadigm Innovations Limited,” according to the statement, which reported that 35 countries had either granted patents or were in the process of granting patents for the PHI as well.

UWI issued a news release last week stating its concern “in the matter that has arisen between the State and professor Brian Copeland, a respected academic in the university.”

UWI described itself as ‘‘an interested party in this matter’’ and asserted its continued commitment “to see more research and development work converted to viable products and services.’’

The university noted that ‘‘much of this work was done by UWI staff within the laboratories of the university’’ and said it had ‘‘a responsibility to fully ascertain the multi-faceted nature of this, including the university’s rights.’’

However, UWI also recognised ‘‘the significant financial support of the Government of Trinidad and Tobago.’’

Given intellectual property’s ‘‘potential contribution to economic development,’ the university had policies and guidelines in place to manage this process and said ‘‘every effort is taken to ensure that these are adhered to by our researchers.’’

The statement concluded that UWI will continue discussions among the parties “with the aim of reaching an understanding that best represents all interests and is beneficial to all parties.”

UWI St Augustine campus principal, Clement Sankat, refused to comment further.

He referred Research Caribbean to the university’s IP policy. The policy covers inventions, the use of university facilities, third party funding, and proceeds from commercialisation and sale.

Copeland succeeded Sankat as engineering faculty dean in 2007 when Sankat took up the position as campus principal, following the transfer of then principal Bhoendradatt Tewarie (2002 to 2007) to the position of pro vice chancellor of planning and development. Tewarie, who holds a doctorate in literature, is now a minister in the current government of Trinidad and Tobago.

Tewarie said that as principal, he was not aware of the arrangements between Copeland and the then government.

He told Research Caribbean: “I was very much aware of the research that was being on the steelpan, on sound and on music, and I was very impressed by this work and I also visited the lab to see the young researchers at work on practical projects under the guidance of Professor Copeland in the Department of Engineering.’’

However, Tewarie said, ‘‘the Prime Minister at the time and the then government dealt directly with Professor Copeland.

“There may have been other people at the University who were aware of the arrangements with the government, but I was not aware of the terms and conditions of any of the arrangements in question.”

Since the attorney general’s actions, at least two other people have claimed at least partial involvement in the technologies.

Newsday newspapers reported Trinidad-born pannist Garnet Broadbelt worked on a project to develop an electronic steel pan in 1994 at York University in Toronto where he studied music and anthropology.

In 1995, Broadbelt submitted a proposal for an electronic pan to Pan Trinbago, the Trinidad and Tobago national organisation of steelbands.

Metallurgist Clement Imbert, now deputy dean at the UWI engineering faculty, designed a way to mass-manufacture steel pans in the 1970s before the government of the day withdrew funding from the project. He has been conducting continuous research and development work on the steelpan.

Additionally, various UWI public documents, including a news release of 6 February 2008 headlined “UWI Steel Pan Researchers invent electronic PHI-pan” and the September 2009 issue of its monthly newsletter, UWI Today, name others said to have been involved in the project at the UWI Steel Pan Research Laboratory.