Around the time that the Citizen Entrepreneurial Development Agency had just been established, there arose widespread and grave concern that its officers were stealing business ideas and passing them on their accomplices in the private sector. Such concern reached the floor of parliament when MPs on both sides of the house responded to an edition of President Festus Mogae’s state-of-the-nation in the early 2000s.
Responding to this allegation, then Leader of the House, Lieutenant General Mompati Merafhe, promised that the government would launch an investigation and report back to parliament. The government never made good on that promise and likewise, allegations that CEDA officers steal business ideas have never ceased.
A new minister in a new government made a similar promise last Thursday when he tabled a policy on intellectual property before parliament. In a wide-ranging response to comments made earlier by MPs, the Minister of Investment, Trade and Industry, Mmusi Kgafela, said that people are reluctant to take their ideas to the government because they fear that they would be stolen by the officers they present them to. He said that people believe that ideas that were rejected because they are not good enough, later resurface in original form and are funded by the government. Mmusi said that when that happens, those who have been conned put two and two together and conclude that it was the officers who stole the idea. He promised that the allegation was one of the things that his ministry would investigate.
The minister also encouraged members of the public to report suspected intellectual property theft to authorities as well as to register their creations with Companies and Intellectual Property Authority, as a way of protecting such creations. Reporting suspected theft is a good point because while some complain about their ideas being stolen, to our knowledge, only one such case has reached the High Court. In the latter, BP Implements sued the Kgalagadi Breweries Limited for the sum of P800 000 for what it alleged was unauthorised use of its business idea. The idea was of a music concert headlined by an American R&B star, Joe Thomas, who is better known as Joe. In his court papers, BP Implements managing director, Kgosietsile Mariri, alleged that KBL had promised to sponsor the concert but, at the last minute, ditched him in favour of another music promoter. The court ended up ruling in KBL’s favour.
There have been at least two publicly reported cases of undeniable theft of ideas, both related to government-linked organisations. In the first case, which Sunday Standard carried as a lead story, Botsnet, a subsidiary of the Botswana Telecommunications Corporation, plagiarised the logo of a Russian company. It is unclear how the matter was resolved but it is more than likely that Botsnet (renamed BeMobile) quietly settled with the Russian company. In the second case, the Botswana Housing Corporation cut and pasted its maintenance policy from one long developed by a United States public authority – the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority.