A former employee of a South African-based mobile phone operator is locked in a court battle with the company over claims he invented a popular call back system it offers.
Nkosana Makate is claiming compensation from Vodacom and is insisting that he was the brains behind the Please Call Me service.
Makate, who has no IP protection on the invention, claims he entered into a verbal agreement which said he would receive a reward if Vodacom used the idea and that the invention was acknowledged in a staff email.
Please Call Me, which is used by Vodacom customers throughout Africa, lets users low on credit send free messages to friends and family asking them to call back.
Makate first approached Johannesburg’s South Gauteng High Court in 2008 after sending unsuccessful letters of demand to Vodacom when he realised the company had launched the service but he had not been paid.
However, Alan Knott-Craig, the company’s former chief executive officer (CEO), who also gave evidence, claimed that he first came up with the idea for the service.
Describing the lack of protection as a “potential drawback,” Owen Dean, consultant at Spoor & Fisher in Cape Town, said: “Ideas are not protected by IP, you cannot get copyright for an idea unless it was recorded in fixed or material form and it’s too vague to be a patent, the best way he could have got protection would be if he had an agreement was reached that the idea belonged to him.”
Vodacom has strenuously denied any agreement was made with Makate.
“In some ways it’s a loophole in the IP sphere,” Dean said. “I have often been confronted with the situation where a client, who has come up with an idea themselves, has said the law should offer better protection.
“The only thing you can do is advise them to get a written agreement that there will be no use of the idea without reward.”
The long-running case was put on hold on August 10 to allow the parties to prepare their closing arguments.
“The plaintiff claims he came up with the idea and that there was an agreement made that he would get remuneration, the defendant says no such agreement took place and the former CEO claims he invented the service. Really, it’s purely factual and comes down to who the courts choose to believe,” said Dean.
Hinting that Vodacom seemed to be trying to “avoid paying out”, Dean added: “Normally damages would be based on legal costs with the losing party covering the costs incurred; With a case such as this, involving a large corporation, I imagine the amount will be fairly high.”
The case is expected to be concluded in September.
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Please Call Me, Vodacom, South Africa, IP, South Guateng High Court