Witsie sues Vodacom over Please Call Me
DESPITE claiming that Vodacom stole his Please Call Me idea, Witsie, Nkosana Makate has no grudges against the telecommunications giant and still subscribes to its services.
Makate has been embroiled in an intellectual property dispute for the service he claims he invented and was not compensated for.
The dispute has been playing out for three weeks at the South Gauteng High Court, where both parties presented their arguments. A court date still has to be set by the judge for closing arguments.
Makate, a sociology and psychology student said he had no grudge against his superior at the time, former Vodacom CEO Alan Knott-Craig . Knott-Craig was at the helm of the company between 1993 and 2008. He is now the CEO of Cell C.
“I’ve always respected the man. I still do. It’s just that we had quite an awkward moment, that he probably loved the invention so much that he believed it came from him.”
Where it all started
It all started with a love affair in 2000, according to Makate, when his then girlfriend now wife who was a student at the University of Fort Hare had no money for airtime.
Lack of airtime for a long distance relationship and a couple of communication barriers, sparked an idea for a free telecommunications service which allows mobile users to send free messages for the recipient to call back.
“Please Call Me solved a relationship love problem, which culminated into technology.”
Makate, a Vodacom accountant at the time pitched the idea to his boss and executive for product development at the time, Philip Geissler. He claims that his idea was captured in a proposal and concept documents and “that’s how it [Please Call Me idea] got to Vodacom.”
According to Business Day Knott-Craig has refuted in court that he had any knowledge of Makate’s agreement with Geissler and that he was not contractually bound to compensate Makate.
[pullquote]I knew that for me I had nothing to lose further except to try to get justice and fear will always be there when you take on big giants[/pullquote]Knott-Craig also has his own version on how Please Call Me came about.
According to media reports, Knott-Craig in his memoir details how he allegedly invented the idea. While observing from a balcony how two security guards were trying to communicate with each other through missed calls, that’s was the gap Knott-Craig saw for the inception of the service.
“Between him and I, we know who came up with the idea. In a court decision it will come and be clear exactly who is the inventor.”
Makate said his quest for “justice” through the legal route was the last option, as he tried to settle the matter out of court.
All what Makate wants is for Vodacom to recognise that he “has been wronged.”
And only in 2008, after failed attempts to get Vodacom to discuss the Please Call Me concept, he approached the courts.
Makate alleges that after summoning Vodacom to court, he tried to engage with Vodacom about the matter, but to no avail. On taking on a large telecoms conglomerate, Makate said he got to a space where fear didn’t matter.
“I knew that for me I had nothing to lose further except to try to get justice and fear will always be there when you take on big giants.”
He also said looking back in time, he surprises himself by the strength he had to see through the 13 year Please Call Me battle with Vodacom.
His bid is to have the telecommunications company compensate him atleast 15% of the revenues made from the successful service and the company to keep the lions share.
Although he had a turbulent relationship with the company which gave him grief for 13 years, still subscribes to Vodacom.
He suspects that Vodacom is tapping his conversations.
He added: “When you pursue the truth, there is nothing to hide. I know they are tapping me, they know what I’m talking about. This interview is probably known, for me it doesn’t matter.”
Litigation against Vodacom according to Makate doesn’t come cheap. He initially had to fund the case from his own pocket. When Makate’s story continued to be publicised by the media, he then garnered financial support from donors in 2011. “[pullquote align=”right”]In Ubuntu culture, you try to engage people first. Courts are foreign to us. Unfortunately it was something I was forced to do when I got a response to say they are not prepared to meet with me ever. It was a watershed moment[/pullquote].”
“I got funders who came on board who said we can assist. They evaluated the case and saw merit in it and they assisted.”
When asked how the please call me offering had developed since its inception, Makate said it had been successful.
“It has done well. I think it has grown over the years. It’s the kind of market where its audience will be the poor. It will always be those who cannot access whatsapp.”
Lessons and future endeavours
Makate said his struggle with Vodacom has not deterred him from producing innovations. However, he is now cautious about patenting his innovations.
“I protect [innovations] now before divulging…I am probably more skeptical in how I approach things now than I was at 24 years old.”
Life beyond the Vodacom battle for Makate involves giving motivational talks at High Schools on his intellectual property battle. He is also penning his book titled Taming The Beast on his please call me story.
He is quick to clarify that the beast in his book title is not Vodacom, but “corporate in total”. The book will be completed, once a judgment has been served. A movie on please call me is also on the horizon.
Business Day ,Knott-Craig denies he knew of ‘invention fee’, 08 August 2013.
Mail and Guardian, Vodacom’s ‘Please Call Me’ case: Investing in the fight for justice,
Money Web, Vodacom’s Please Call Me case: the inside story,16 August 2013.