Blackberry Users Await Decision in Patent Case

A judge in Richmond, Va., hears arguments in a patent-infringement suit that could affect millions of Blackberry users. RIM, the maker of the Blackberry, asks the court not to impose an injunction shutting off service. The plaintiff is software developer NTP. It says RIM stole its copyright.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

BlackBerry users can relax, at least for now. Today the federal judge presiding over the patent case against RIM, the owner of BlackBerry, said he would not issue an injunction that would shut down the wireless email service. He left open the possibility that he would do so in the near future. The judge has made it clear he wants RIM and the other company, NTP, to work out a settlement. But it's not clear the threat of a shutdown is going to end the court battle, which has dragged on for five years now.

Joining us is NPR's Frank Langfitt, who was in the courtroom in Richmond, Virginia today. And, Frank, the judge in this case, James Spencer, seems to be quite frustrated with both sides. What did he have to say in court today?

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

Well, he said he was very surprised to see these two companies back in court. And he seemed really unhappy with RIM. You know, he pointed out that back in 2002 a jury ruled against RIM on this very issue. And he said that since then it should have been solved in a conference room, not a courtroom. And really, essentially, it's a business dispute, not a legal one. And then he issued what sounded a bit like a warning, and it seemed focused on RIM. He said, because they were asking for a, you know, a resolution in the courtroom, he was going to issue what he called an imperfect decision

BLOCK: Now, if the judge does go ahead, ultimately, and issue an injunction that would shut down the service, how would that work? What would happen?

LANGFITT: Well, nothing immediately. There'd be at least 30 days, and that's because there are probably hundreds of thousands of government workers, you know, on Capitol Hill and in cities around the country, as well as first responders, who would be exempt from this. And so this would give RIM time to make sure that those people wouldn't be cut off. But RIM also has another idea. It's called a work around. And what this is is a software solution that they've worked up that they say would keep the BlackBerrys working just fine. That the users wouldn't even notice the difference. But this new software wouldn't infringe on the patent.

BLOCK: Well if they have that technology, that work around, this alternative technology that, that would solve RIM's legal problems, why hasn't the company just switched over to that, anyway?

LANGFITT: Well this is a last resort. I mean, they say it would be very cumbersome to put it to work. They have some, one estimate, they said it would be two million man hours to do it, although they didn't explain how they came up with that number. But of course it would mean downloading software to millions of BlackBerrys. And any time you make a change like this, there's always the risk that it won't work. But I think in many ways what's really going on here, is these are two companies in a game of chicken. You know, over time, the stakes have gotten higher and higher. Lawyers for NTP said this case could have been solved and settled, you know, a long time ago for 10 or 20 million dollars. But now that there are BlackBerrys all over the country, and RIM's making so much money, there's a possibility this case might cost up to a billion dollars to settle.

RIM now has been trying to delay this resolution as long as it can. And it seems to be banking on the U.S. Patent Office, which has been reexamining some of these patents and issuing preliminary judgments against NTP.

BLOCK: Now while all of this was going on in court, RIM'S stock rose today. it rose eight percent on a day that it wasn't seeming to be doing terribly well in court. How do you account for that?

LANGFITT: Well the rulings from the U.S. Patent Office are going RIM'S way. And RIM seems pretty confident. You know, I was outside the courthouse today afterwards with one of the two CEOs, Jim Balsillie. And when he was asked a question he said, kind of quietly but very confidently, the work around is ready. And of course if Judge Spencer issues the injunction that NTP wants, we'll see if they are.

BLOCK: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thanks very much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it.

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