'MTN stole our SMS idea'

Published Nov 5, 2009


By Angelique Serrao

A Polokwane couple are suing MTN for allegedly "stealing" their concept when it ran the controversial MTN15 competition earlier this year.

The cellphone company was forced to close the competition sooner than intended after The Star revealed that certain players allegedly knew how to win the contest.

But the communications giant has indicated it will defend the court action, saying the allegations are groundless.

Emily Dimbi Mahlangu, a government employee, and her partner, Olakunle Nathaniel Olamiju, who is self-employed, claim that in 2007 they came up with the idea of running a quiz-based cellphone competition during the World Cup.

It took them two years to come up with a business plan, which they presented to MTN on April 7 this year.

But MTN spokesperson Bridget Bhengu said the concept behind the MTN15 competition was presented to them by a company called Going Up on September 17, 2008 - "well before any presentation from Mahlangu and Olamiju".

Going Up is a Greek-based company that ran the game. It has run various SMS competitions in Europe, and operates in SA under the name Key Cubed Solutions.

Olamiju said they applied for a patent last December and were given patent number 2008/10585. They named their game the Know My Africa Competition.

Olamiju said they immediately thought of MTN when writing up their business proposal because MTN had a presence in 16 African countries. The competition was to have 64 questions, charged at R3 for each SMS - which would cost subscribers R192 in total to play.

"We tried for weeks to get hold of the CEO at MTN to set up a meeting with him," said Mahlangu. "But we could never get through to him.

"Eventually a friend said she had set up a meeting for us with one of the managers at MTN, called Macy Makgatho. We met her in April and told her about our idea."

Before the couple spoke to Makgatho, they had her sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to ensure their idea was not stolen.

According to the NDA:

- MTN had to obtain the plaintiff's (the couple's) prior written consent to the use and/or exploitation of the Know My Africa Competition.

- To keep the idea confidential.

- To use the proposal only for purposes of internal evaluation within the head office of the department.

"The first thing she (Makgatho) said was that nobody had come up with such a brilliant idea," said Olamiju.

Makgatho had told them she needed to show the idea to her superiors.

"We were so excited after the meeting," said Mahlangu.

They waited for Makgatho to contact them, but Olamiju said she never called and didn't respond when they tried to phone her.

A month later, in May, they saw the MTN15 competition on TV. "I was shattered," said Mahlangu. "Here was our one big chance, two years of research and work, and then to just see it on TV like that."

Olamiju said Mahlangu cried all night after seeing the advert. Her dream of their becoming multimillionaires had disappeared.

Last week, Joburg-based Mothuloe Attorneys served a summons on MTN. It contains the NDA, patent and business proposal drawn up by the couple, and reads: "For all intents and purposes... the defendant's competition is the same as or is an adaptation of the Know My Africa Competition."

Olamiju said the major differences between the MTN15 competition and their idea was the price per SMS and the number of questions to be asked. The MTN competition appeared not to have a limit to the number of questions.

The competitions were similar as both were quiz-based, and the most correct answers sent in by a subscriber determined the winner.

In addition, both allowed the conductors or administrators access to all the statistics online.

The couple are suing MTN for 50 percent of the profits and are demanding that an audit of the competition be supplied.

Bhengu said MTN would not comment further.

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