Software vendor may cash in on contact-center patents

CosmoCom, a software vendor that holds a pair of U.S. patents on IP (Internet Protocol) contact center technology, is now considering moves to defend those patents, company officials said Monday.

The company invented technology for building customer contact centers that use IP data networks, according to Steve Kowarsky, executive vice president at CosmoCom. The technology allows for the integration of new access methods, such as e-mail and text messaging, in addition to voice calls. It also allows for "virtual" contact centers, in which operators can work from distributed facilities or home offices, Kowarsky said.

Cost savings, geographical flexibility and the prospect of improved employee and customer satisfaction are starting to drive small and medium-sized businesses toward IP-based contact centers, and the new technology will be embraced by large enterprises and take the market by storm in 2006, according to Donna Fluss, principal at DMG Consulting. Cisco Systems is a player in the pure IP contact center business along with CosmoCom, and the biggest players in the traditional circuit-switched call center industry, including Avaya and Nortel Networks, also are embracing the new technology, she said.

Privately held CosmoCom was founded in 1996, and its patent claims are effective back to April 1 of that year, Kowarsky said. It sells software that is used for corporations' private call centers and for call-center services offered by carriers, including BT Group.

CosmoCom's latest patent, No. 6,614,783, entitled "Multimedia telecommunication automatic call center distribution system using Internet/PSTN (public switched telephone network) call routing," was issued Sept. 2, 2003. It is a "continuation" of an earlier CosmoCom patent issued in 2000, No. 6,046,762, meaning it expands upon the earlier one, Kowarsky said. The later patent contains stronger claims, he said. Its scope is fairly broad, including methods for receiving and automatically directing voice calls, multimedia calls and electronic messages along with information about the caller. In the year since the patent was issued, CosmoCom has been evaluating how to act upon it, Kowarsky said. The company is now starting to examine whether any vendors are violating the patents.

"We really have to go one by one and examine how much they might be infringing on our technology," said Ari Sonesh, who is chairman, president and chief executive officer of CosmoCom and is named as an inventor on the patents. If CosmoCom finds vendors violating the patents, it hopes to reach licensing deals with them, though it will go to court if necessary, Sonesh said.

The company isn't setting out to stop vendors from using its technology, he said.

"We certainly don't want to impede the development of this industry," Sonesh said.

A licensing move by CosmoCom isn't likely to stall the industry, though if other vendors don't believe they are violating CosmoCom's patents, there could be court battles, DMG's Fluss said. "This is par for the course in the software industry," she said.

The danger from an effort like this doesn't lie only with the possible targets of litigation, according to Steven Frank, a partner at Boston law firm Testa Hurwitz & Thibeault.

"Any time you enforce a patent, you risk the other side invalidating it" in court, Frank said. However, if cases in other industries are any indication, CosmoCom's move won't derail the whole sector.

"It usually doesn't stifle an industry, because it's just a matter of price. What it might do is just raise the cost of doing business," Frank said.

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