Judge rules against BlackBerry maker

A US judge has ruled a case that could result in BlackBerries being shut down can go ahead

A US federal judge won't hold up court proceedings in NTP's patent lawsuit against Research In Motion (RIM), opening the door to a possible injunction that would stop sales of BlackBerry mobile email devices and shut down BlackBerry service, at least in the US.

RIM had filed two motions, one to enforce an agreement with NTP to settle the case and another to stop the court proceedings while the US Patent and Trademark Office re-examines NTP's patents. In a decision yesterday, Judge James Spencer of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia has denied both motions. He ruled that the parties don't have a valid settlement agreement and said the district court could not hold up the case during a patent re-examination that could take years.

RIM sells BlackBerry wireless handhelds and operates a push email service. NTP, a patent holding and licensing company, sued RIM in 2001 claiming the company's devices, email system and method of operating the system infringed NTP patents. NTP won a jury verdict in 2002. In March, the companies announced they had agreed to settle the dispute by having RIM make a US$450 million (NZ$638 million) payment to NTP in exchange for a perpetual licence to NTP's patents. However, the deal fell through, as RIM thought the press release constituted a final agreement while NTP insisted the companies had never reached a definitive agreement.

"We would hope [Wednesday's] significant developments would bring them back to the table," says James Wallace, an lawyer for NTP.

The court will schedule briefings with the parties and set a date for a hearing on the injunction and damages, according to the orders by Judge Spencer. An injunction could be imposed by the end of the year, Wallace says.

Meanwhile, RIM is seeking an appeal to the US Supreme Court and expects the high court to decide over the next few months whether to hear that appeal, it says.

RIM believes an injunction would be inappropriate because of the ongoing patent re-examination, the request for Supreme Court review and other factors, including public interest concerns over suspending BlackBerry service. RIM is also preparing software workarounds it could use if necessary to maintain BlackBerry services in the US, it says.

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