Hearing set on BlackBerry issue

The next legal skirmish for Research in Motion in its patent battle with NTP will take place Feb. 24 in a federal courtroom closely watched by customers worried that RIM's BlackBerry service could be shut down.

Last week, U.S. District Court Judge James Spencer set the date for a hearing to consider a possible injunction against RIM, maker of the BlackBerry wireless e-mail device. NTP has asked the court to close down the BlackBerry service in the United States and to stop the manufacture and sale of the handhelds. Both companies are scheduled to file arguments in the case by Wednesday.

Right around the time the parties will be meeting in the courtroom, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) could be moving toward a decision about the NTP patents at the heart of this dispute. Last December, the office issued another set of preliminary rulings that found NTP's patents to be invalid. NTP's response is due by Feb. 28.

A report last week by analysts at Goldman Sachs noted that "NTP must prove that these patents contain new inventions on several key patents by Feb. 28 or face the PTO permanently rejecting the patents," the authors wrote. "If the PTO issues final rejections on any or all of the five NTP patents, this could change the course of the lawsuit. To the extent that patents are ruled invalid, we believe that it is likely that this would be considered by the District Court."

An NTP spokesperson had not returned a request for comment by deadline.

Even if the injunction is granted, it's unclear which users would be affected or how badly.

NTP's injunction request includes an exemption for public safety and certain other users, mainly in government and defense, and a 30-day delay to allow other users to make alternative arrangements for wireless e-mail.

RIM, in a statement last week, says it would "present the courts with facts and arguments that warrant a longer grace period."

RIM executives have consistently declined to comment in interviews, and did so again last week, issuing the written statement instead.

"There are compelling public interests against entry of an injunction, and NTP can be fully compensated through ongoing royalty payments in lieu of an injunction," the statement says.

RIM says it has written software, dubbed "the workaround," that is ready to be installed if necessary. But the company still refuses to give any details about how the new software actually works, or what kinds of resources would be needed to install, test, update and maintain the software in enterprise deployments.

NTP previously has insisted that it considers the workaround to be covered by its patents.

"I'm trying to get details on the workaround," says Bridget O'Flynn, CEO of Datavoci, a St. Louis software developer that writes business applications for the RIM software platform and devices. "We'd like to have something in place in case they do cut off service."

O'Flynn says she's been getting some calls from enterprise clients, but no one is panicked. "Mostly, they're concerned about whether the [BlackBerry] device will keep working, whether they'll still be able to get e-mails and data and if they can't, will our products work on a Treo or some other device," she says. "Our software can work on another device. But not overnight."

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