So what actually happened in the Vodacom case?
Well, Makate was a Vodacom employee who, after the typical long-distance communication stuff-ups with his girlfriend, had the idea for the ‘Please Call Me’. His job at Vodacom wasn’t to come up with ideas for the company, so he privately pitched the concept to the Head of Product Management. The two of them agreed that if the idea worked, Makate would share in the profits. The idea ended up being a success (to the sum of a few billion Rand in revenue), but after some convenient lapses of memory on the part of Vodacom, Makate didn’t end up getting paid so he took them all to court.
So the case isn’t as much about ownership of ideas as it is about enforcing a contract.
Makate’s challenge was that the agreement was a verbal one, and while verbal agreements are binding, their existence is difficult to prove. Makate won the case because he was able to prove that there was an agreement between himself and Vodacom that he would be paid.
There are two major take home messages from this case. Firstly, ideas in and of themselves are not protectable.
You can’t own an idea. So the minute you share an idea, it’s up for grabs. Makate protected against this by making an agreement with Vodacom that if the idea worked he would get paid. So basically, while you can’t own ideas, you can make arrangements with the people you share them with. This is the backbone of any commercial business.
Secondly, if you work in a creative job, you would be mistaken to now assume that you own the ideas you give to your employer. If someone is paying you a salary (or a freelance fee), that person will be the owner (generally speaking) of the fruits of your work. So if you’re paid to create, design, draw, write or think – whoever is paying the bills owns the work. Your employment contract probably states something to that effect. Your job is basically to trade creativity for cash. And it’s a pretty good trade. So if you try to start charging your boss for your ideas, you may encounter some problems on the whole staying employed front.
For the most part, this case will have little relevance on your daily life and you should probably continue life as normal. However at some point you will have an idea that’s really good. If you want to make sure that you’re going to be the owner of the next Please Call Me, then you should either do the idea yourself or arrange a separate agreement with whomever helps you with the idea on how to split the winnings.
Then most importantly – whatever arrangement you make needs to be written down. Writing and signatures is the perfect cure for business amnesia.
Sharing ideas with others is the basis of brainstorming, business and hopefully success. So while you can’t own your ideas, you can be a smart businessperson and make sure that you benefit the most from those eurekamoments.
Eitan Stern & Reneesha Davidson
Featured here: http://creativenestlings.com/please-idea-me-with-legalese/