A South African inventor has won his legal bid to compel Vodacom, a leading mobile phone telco to compensate him for inventing a popular messaging service ‘Please Call Me’. The service which is also used in Kenya was introduced by Vodacom in February 2001. It allows prepaid customers to send a message for free to other users asking to be called back.
The inventor Kenneth Nkosana Makate, was employed by Vodacom (Pty) Limited, as a trainee accountant. In November 2000, he conceived the Please Call Me idea which he intended to sell to a willing buyer. After seeking advice from within Vodacom, he approached Mr Geissler, who at the time was Vodacom’s Director and Head of Product Development. Makate entered into an oral agreement with Vodacom’s Director and Head of Product Development according to which Vodacom would experiment with the idea and if it proved commercially viable, Makate would be paid a share of proceeds from the product, subject to terms to be negotiated. Makate instituted a claim against Vodacom in the High Court after his demands on Vodacom to honour the oral agreement were unsuccessful. In the High Court Vodacom contended that in terms of Makate’s employment contract, the idea was Vodacom’s property for which Makate was not entitled to compensation. Vodacom, however, did not proceed with this claim as Makate conceived the idea outside of his scope of work. The matter proceeded to the Constitutional Court, which ordered Vodacom to compensate Makate for inventing the Please Call Me service.
This case highlights the importance of companies having proper policies and procedures in place to deal with the protection and enforcement of their intellectual property. This will help create certainty for both employers and employees and will also ensure that these important intellectual property assets are properly commercialized in accordance with good business practices.
For the full judgement, see below.