Does The Handpan Need Saving?

How copyright lawsuits are threatening a beloved hipster instrument

Merijn de Haen
10 min readNov 29, 2020
Handpan Hang Drum Legal Lawsuit Plagiarism
Photo by Kyle Cox on Unsplash

For the past two decades, sounds of steel have enchanted town squares and subway stations all over the world. Mysterious, melancholy, meditative, and unfailingly fascinating.

Passers-by turn their heads to locate the source of these uncommon sounds. They linger, savor the sweet melodies, and perhaps donate to the busker fortunate enough to have access to such a pleasant sounding instrument. Their day brightened, the spectators move on.

That instrument has been called many things over the years, with names such as pantam, Hang, and handpan being the most commonly used.

This is not to the liking of the people who first came up with the idea, shape, material, and sound of the instrument. They are the ones who thought of the name Hang, and they feel that their creation has been stolen from them.

Meditative though their sounds may be, conflict is brewing amongst the makers of these instruments.

The Hang

The instrument grew out of a vibrant musical tradition. Forbidden by their colonial former slave masters to have musical instruments, the people of the Caribbean island of Trinidad made use of whatever they had lying around. Bamboo sticks of different length, called tamboo bamboo, were used to make music. And so were lids of garbage cans, frying pans, and actual oil drums.

What has become known as the traditional Trinidadian steel pan is a concave steel instrument that yields a collection of harmonic tones. Created out of an oil drum, the steel pan is tuned with hammers and mallets to produce its remarkable sound, when struck with a stick.

Originality, experimentation, and innovation have remained important to the steel pan tradition, with each year seeing new iterations on the same basic layout, and strong taboos against directly copying other pannists’ work.

Trinidadian steelpans played by BP Renegades Steel Orchestra

Bern, Switzerland, the 70s. Inspired by the performance of a visiting Trinidadian steelband, Felix Rohner learns how to create and tune steel pan instruments. Due to difficulties with the hardness of sheet steel in Europe, he starts experimenting with different materials, and a variety of processes.

Eventually, he finds a material that suits the purpose — patenting it under the name Pang — and experiments with creating new musical shapes.

Inspiration is kindled further by a visiting musician, who is interested in having a steel version of an Indian ceramic percussion instrument — the ghatam — which could be played by hand.

In the early 2000s, many iterations and experiments later, Rohner and his partner Sabina Schärer unveil the Hang. The UFO-shaped instrument is gobbled up by musicians: a thousand instruments are sold in its first two years, in a wide variety of different tunings. Thousands more would change hands in the following decade.

Two Hangs played by the formation Hang Massive

A total of four generations of the Hang were developed. In 2013, the creative drive led to the creation of the Gubal — and a further series of distinct instruments. Around the same time, the production of the older Hanghang (the plural of Hang) was halted.

The Hang’s troubling demise

The Hang was a success story. But even before production was ceased, demand for the instrument was far greater than the supply.

At a certain stage in the late 2000s, it became difficult to obtain a Hang from the Swiss makers, as they stopped responding to email, instead requiring snail mail application letters.

During this period of scarcity, second-hand Hanghang would regularly be sold for outrageous sums on eBay. PANArt, the company founded by Rohner and Schärer, attempted to address this by attaching a new agreement to the purchase of a Hang. Owners wanting to sell the instrument were obligated to sell it back to the company. Should PANArt refuse the option, owners were free to sell to others, but only for its original price, or risk facing a steep penalty.

Other things would change, too. The makers decided the Hang was less of a musical instrument, and more an instrument for self-discovery through sound.

Some people were told they weren’t eligible to buy a Hang because they intended to use it as a percussion instrument.

The variety of scales once offered was reduced down to a single scale.

For some musicians, things began to feel more than a little constricted.

According to career percussionist David Kuckhermann, things went from bad to worse when some Hang owners found they weren’t able to get their instruments serviced. Hanghang require regular retuning, due to the stresses of the form factor, and of being played. In some cases, PANArt decided that an owner had used the instrument for purposes unbecoming a Hang — such as public performance or busking — and would refuse further service to the instrument.

Hang owners now had to choose between abandoning their beloved, expensive instrument, and learning how to tune it themselves.

Enter the handpan

And when you’re learning to tune — which involves striking the instrument repeatedly with hammers — you might as well learn to make the instrument itself.

A market took shape, while people who were adventurous, and in love with the singing steel began making their own versions of the instrument. Just as Felix Rohner had done, from the 1970s onward. In his own way, creating and tuning Trinidad-inspired steel pans for decades, he too started out copying the examples of others.

Over time, these handpan makers would get in touch with each other to share production tips. Tuners who apprenticed with one company would go on to found their own handpan ateliers. Some companies stepped up to deliver the raw materials for smaller makers to get a head start, and focus their efforts on creating their own sound and branding. Another started making flight cases. Boutique shops opened, venues began booking handpan artists that had done well on social media or elsewhere, and summer festivals were organized around the instrument.

Gradually, a veritable handpan ecosystem emerged, which began to outgrow the need for the Swiss inventors’ guidance or acceptance.

As of 2020, there are well over one hundred individual handpan producers.

Malte Marten demonstrating an Ayasa handpan

A flurry of lawsuits

PANArt has not been happy with this development, calling it plagiarism and theft.

Felix Rohner explains:

[They] take the shape of the Hang sculpture, rebuild it in any material (sometimes down to every detail). They refused to take a license [for the use of Pang], they don’t want to have the best material, they decide to work with soft sheet metal, stainless.

The point is: they put something else in it than what is lived, thought, described and meant by PANArt.

Copying the Hang sculpture and not contributing to the story, just commercializing is a step backwards.

Their stance has been that it is alright to build on their work, and to license their patented Pang material — a specially developed composite material — but that new additions to the market should bring creative or innovative value, and not just copy what has been done by PANArt.

In the words of David Rohner, Felix’ son and co-worker within the company:

The competition should step up, with better concepts, new forms and exciting innovations. Like we did with the Hang Gubal, Hang Bal and Hang Balu and all the percussive pots. Not just more notes on the same form.

PANArt has sent numerous cease-and-desist letters, and brought legal cases against a number of handpan manufacturers. For a long time, these efforts have proved unsuccessful in producing the desired outcomes for the company.

But in 2020 that may have changed, when a number of German courts ruled that the Hang instrument is protected by copyright law. Coupled with a recent legal precedent from the European Court of Justice, chances are PANArt has a stronger case, going forward.

Save the handpan

This appears to have emboldened PANArt, sending out more letters and bringing more court cases.

One such case has already been resolved, with Russian tongue drum and handpan maker RAV Drum writing on its website it will halt the sale of its RAV Pan in Germany.

Ayasa Instruments, another handpan maker served by PANArt’s lawyers, has started a crowdfunding campaign, titled “Save the Handpan.”

They are worried a recognition of PANArt’s copyright might limit the creation, sale, and public performance of handpan instruments.

Handpan Community United — HCU — the entity behind the Save the Handpan campaign, argues that musical instruments are not usually protected by copyright, and that PANArt’s claim leans heavily on the Hang’s classification as a work of art.

They say PANArt’s recent legal successes happened because defendants were not showing up, or had failed to properly prepare their defense. This established a perilous legal precedent that might threaten the whole industry.

To mount a proper legal strategy, HCU is seeking to crowdfund € 250,000 from handpan aficionados. At the time this article is written, the crowdfunding campaign is approaching its halfway point.

During a meeting in Switzerland between representatives of PANArt, HCU, and their respective lawyers, the Swiss company was asked whether they might consider a licensing arrangement. This would allow handpan makers to continue operating, while paying PANArt a fee for each instrument produced.

PANArt responded they do not want to compromise the originality of their works for commercial reasons.

In other words: no-pe.

After the meeting, HCU filed a lawsuit of its own with a Swiss court to clarify the question of copyright, once and for all.

Who is right?

In the left hand corner, we have PANArt and its lawyers. They feel the integrity of their products is threatened by creators and purveyors of copycat instruments. They refuse to compromise, and have come out swinging.

In the right hand corner, there are the handpan people, who fear going back to the situation of market scarcity, where PANArt decided unilaterally who was deemed eligible to receive a Hang, or get it tuned.

From a dispassionate vantage point, both sides appear to be locked in a spiral of escalation. Both view the other as the aggressor, who is threatening to take something precious. Both view themselves as the underdog.

As an amateur musician, I can sympathize with both sides. Which is why I have attempted to present both arguments as accurately as possible.

I am in awe of Felix and Sabina’s continuous innovation and ongoing creative impetus to the sweet songs of steel. And I can’t help but wonder if there would even be anything called a handpan, without their work.

It’s kind of odd to see that they are not often being recognized for their efforts. Looking at some of the handpan makerswebsites, no mention is made of PANArt’s innovative efforts.

In private communications, HCU explains that their members initially welcomed the chance of referring to the Swiss company. However, in one early case, PANArt has discouraged the use of the company name and trademarks, and has asked the handpan maker, Pantheon Steel, to change the content of their website accordingly.

Moreover, PANArt has made it clear that, to them, this is not about money, markets, or recognition. They use phrases like “the call of the hammer,” “dead products,” and “the banality of mass production.”

Interpreting innovation

As to PANArt’s claim that the handpan makers are basically copying their designs, and not innovating, I guess it’s up to your interpretation of the term “innovation.” It is certainly true that most makers have stayed close to the original Hang form factor.

Hang drum handpan lawsuit copyright
The general shape of most handpans resembles that of the Hang; original image found here

All handpans are shaped like 1950s drawings of UFOs. They all have a central note, with a nipply bulge — often called the Ding. They all have a hole in the middle of the bottom—called the Gu. Lastly, all handpans have a ring of tone fields set around the Ding.

Within this overall schematic, there is some divergence between individual handpan makers, when it comes to:

Many makers have added personal touches to their instruments.

According to David Kuckhermann — the percussionist involved with HCU — some professional musicians now prefer the sound of modern handpans to that of original Hanghang. They claim handpans have surpassed the original in tonal range, and musical utility.

Does this amount to innovation? I suppose that is up to the judges to decide.

What if PANArt succeeds in its copyright lawsuits?

Let’s imagine PANArt’s lawsuits are successful. What would be the effect on the handpan scene, and on the music scene more broadly?

Seeing as copyright claims are extremely long-lived — in most cases copyright only expires 70 years after its last-living creator has died — the effect could be far-reaching.

Potentially, there would be no new instruments, other than those produced by PANArt. The company would have sole discretion to decide who would get to own one, and what the lucky buyer would then be allowed to do with it.

Less instruments would mean fewer players, fewer songs, fewer public appearances, fewer opportunities for it to jam with other musical instruments, and less of a chance to create beautiful music. Such as the piece below.

Hang, handpan, and trumpet performing ensemble

Imagine if there were only one producer of electric guitars, who decided what could be done with them, and how they should be sold. Would we have today’s remarkable richness of popular music genres — from jazz to stoner rock?

Disrupting the lively handpan ecosystem in favor of someone’s copyright, while it might satisfy a certain desire for justice, also feels like an impoverishment. Not to mention the loss of livelihood, creativity, and musical innovation that is likely to go with it.

And then there is the selfish argument. Effectively damaging the handpan marketplace through lawsuits does not benefit me as a player of these instruments. For consumers the current situation of market saturation, lots of choice, and somewhat affordable prices is hard to beat.

But hey, who cares what I think. What do you think, now that you are in possession of the facts? Have your say in the comments :)