Please Call Me with cash, inventor tells Vodacom

04 December 2016 - 16:14 By ASHA SPECKMAN

Nkosana Makate says Vodacom is questioning whether it gained any competitive advantage from his idea

Vodacom is being accused of trying to shirk its obligation to pay Nkosana Makate for his Please Call Me invention after negotiations broke down two months ago.

Now Makate has approached the Constitutional Court again to get the cellphone company to compensate him for the idea he gave it in 2000. The application was filed this week.

Makate said he was disappointed but not surprised by events since the Constitutional Court ordered in April this year that Vodacom had to negotiate in good faith to determine reasonable compensation.

Negotiations deadlocked in September and further correspondence deteriorated last month before the parties could discuss the amount due to Makate, which experts have estimated to be in the millions.

Makate said the parties disagreed on the interpretation of the court order. "Clearly, the stance they are taking is to try and run away from their legal obligations.

"But I'm in a good space. I don't have a problem. I've got lots of support. I've got a legal team that is working and that is not really focused on the money but on what needs to be done."

The latest application was to seek clarity from the court on the order or, alternatively, to compel Vodacom to give experts appointed by Makate access to records of the revenue the Please Call Me service has generated for the company since its launch in 2001.

Vodacom said on Friday it was committed to engaging in good faith. "We are extremely disappointed that the negotiations have been put on hold," said spokesman Byron Kennedy.

"Notwithstanding its view that the court order is clear and unambiguous, Vodacom has made a number of attempts to resolve the current impasse."

The company said it remained open to finding a fair solution through a process that would consider various "computation methodologies, as opposed to one singular methodology demanded by Mr Makate, to arrive at a reasonable amount of compensation to finally settle this matter".

Initially, following the court order in April, Vodacom was proactive, according to court papers filed on behalf of Makate, sending a letter dated May 4 in which it requested a meeting to negotiate and a preliminary meeting to prepare terms of reference for the negotiation process.

Makate's lawyers replied and proposed a two-stage process: that the parties would first determine the reasonable percentage of revenue that was due, and, second, the actual amount of money due to Makate.

But Makate contends in court papers that in June Vodacom quibbled over the interpretation of "reasonable compensation" and said the court had not qualified that aspect of the order.

He said that based on Vodacom's approach, the "odds of reaching agreement expeditiously are extremely slim".

The parties eventually met only twice - on September 7 and 19. In the first meeting, Vodacom revisited aspects of the case: that Makate did not have a patentable idea, that MTN had developed a similar product before Vodacom, and that Makate did not provide input after the idea was proposed, according to papers Makate filed.

Makate claims Vodacom questioned whether it had gained any competitive advantage from his idea "which merited any compensation whatsoever". Vodacom also claimed the implementation of the idea was different to his conception.

The dispute dates back to 2000, when Makate, a Vodacom employee at the time, provided an idea by which a cellphone user without airtime could send a free message to another user requesting a call back.

This would increase traffic on the network.

Makate wanted 15% of the revenue generated. Vodacom promised to compensate him after the idea was enhanced technically. What followed was a 15-year battle, including eight spent in court.