Just the other day, I was talking to a local developer and he brought to my attention a recurring topic which I had otherwise chosen to ignore in the past. However, this developer caught my attention by giving a personal testimony, which frankly speaking was quite sad. It got worse when he provided me with a list of friends and colleagues who had gone through similar situations. It is at that point when I decided to write this article so that I throw mud onto the wall and see what really sticks.
So most tech people do not believe in pitching their ideas to big companies or corporations because somehow the companies assimilate the ideas but never acknowledge the brains behind it. There are a lot of people that claim to have pitched ideas that are today being implemented by big companies like Econet, Powertel etc. I know people tend to get defensive when econet is mentioned because of the great man behind it: Strive Masiyiwa (me included!) but I think we have to come to a point where we divorce him from the daily operations of econet. If ideas are being stolen, then he definitely is not the culprit because he is not directly involved in that process.
Nevertheless, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves as this could purely be by coincidence. We might want to consider that probably by the time we pitch our ‘new’ ideas to companies, they might already have the same idea underway- but what are the odds? It also then stops adding up when they tell you how great your idea is and how they will get back to you, which is mostly never!
A classic example: in March 2016, *Spanky, (I will use the name Spanky for obvious reasons) noticed how the Zimbabwean Republic Police (ZRP) had no website. He then decided to develop a prototype for the website and submitted his proposal to ZRP. He also made sure to clarify that he was offering the service for free because all he wanted was to gain publicity for his business. A month and a half later, Spanky received a phone call from his father, informing him that ZRP had launched a website. Out of curiosity, he checked it out and voila, it had disturbingly similar functions to that of his submitted prototype. Coincidence? Or maybe let’s just comply to the fact that ZRP has sensitive information and all, but was it not a noble idea to contact Spanky rather than go MIA on him after he had ‘given’ them such a useful idea? Ofcourse this is his version of what happened, and those events are not the main part of the article.
Anyway, the situation is not entirely hopeless (assuming that people’s ideas are indeed being stolen) because of the existence of entities like ARIPO and conventions like the Berne International Convention. Such initiatives are quite helpful, but sadly, they aren’t full proof. The Berne Convention for example protects an implemented idea and most startups pitch their ideas to bigger corporations because they do not have the capacity or authorisation to implement them by themselves.
Besides, an idea can always be adopted and implemented in a slightly different manner; and of course the bigger corporation is bound to get more traction than the originator of the idea. Also, the conditions and costs of signing up with the likes of ARIPO may be too high for a new kid on the block thus making it difficult or near impossible for these new startups to get the IP protection they need.
Way forward? Well, I think I’ve played my part so it’s your turn now…