The astonishing story behind the Please Call Me fight between Vodacom and MTN

The Please Call Me battle between Vodacom and Kenneth Makate dominated the news last week after a public demonstration shut down Vodacom’s head office.

The battle centres around fair compensation for Makate’s idea which led to the “Please Call Me” service – but many people now know that the service was not his invention.

Vodacom recently admitted that the Please Call Me was invented and subsequently patented by MTN and Ari Kahn before Makate came up with the idea.

Kahn told MyBroadband that Makate’s proposal was different from the Please Call Me service which Vodacom implemented.

He explained that Makate proposed “Buzz” – a service to allow a user without airtime to dial a phone number and give a “missed call”.

“Not only was his proposal technically unsupported, it was not technically possible, since a call could only mature to ringing state if the user had credit,” Kahn said.

Makate’s idea therefore did not progress beyond an idea as engineers at Vodacom could not reduce it to practice and inventions are required by law to be reduced to practice.

MTN did not enforce its Call Me patent

In November 2000, Kahn conceived the Call Me idea and briefed patent attorneys to prepare a patent application for filing.

The patent was filed on 22 January 2001 and a day later MTN launched its Call Me service. It was an instant hit, with millions of messages sent in the first few weeks.

Vodacom responded by launching a carbon copy of MTN’s service on 15 March 2001 – also called Call Me. The name was later changed to Please Call Me.

MTN immediately notified Vodacom that it was infringing on its Call Me patent which was filed a few weeks earlier.

While there were a few heated exchanges between the two companies, MTN curiously decided to not to enforce its patent rights.

With the fierce rivalry between Vodacom and MTN, it was astonishing that MTN let this go without a legal fight. What really happened, however, was astonishing.

What happened between Vodacom and MTN

During the heated exchanges between Vodacom and MTN, one of Vodacom’s principal investors at the time, The Rembrandt Group (through VenFin), jumped in.

The Rembrandt Group, which was founded and run by the Rupert family, had the same legal counsel as MTN: Spoor and Fisher.

The powerful Rembrandt Group used its influence to convince MTN and Spoor and Fisher to drop the case.

MTN withdrew their representation and, according to one source, the docket pertaining to this case was “destroyed”.

When questions about the Call Me docket arose, it was claimed that there were no electronic backups. “Unbelievable. Yet true,” the source said.

The decision by MTN not to enforce its patent ultimately benefited the mobile industry and consumers in South Africa.

MTN and Spoor and Fisher comment

MTN SA spokesperson Jacqui O’Sullivan told MyBroadband that the mobile telecommunications industry still was very new in the early 2000s.

“At MTN, we were focused on developing the category and driving mass participation by South Africans,” she said.

“Patent law is extremely complex and MTN was not inclined to enter into a drawn-out litigation on this service that aimed to keep South Africans in contact.”

O’Sullivan highlighted that MTN made its decision 18 years ago and is in no way involved in the current dispute related to the “Please Call Me” issue.

Spoor and Fisher partner Lodewyk Cilliers told MyBroadband that they are not in a position to comment substantively on this matter.

Cilliers, however, said they are not aware of any Spoor and Fisher files having been inexplicably destroyed.

Vodacom mum on the issue

Vodacom was asked for comment on the Please Call Me matter and it allegedly infringing on MTN’s patent, but the company did not reply by the time of publication.

Call Me Patent

The Call Me patent, filed by MTN and Kahn on 22 January 2001, is below.

Callme Patent by on Scribd

Now read: Makate did not invent anything and his idea was not technically possible – Ari Kahn

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The astonishing story behind the Please Call Me fight between Vodacom and MTN