Bye-bye, BlackBerry?

A federal court hearing scheduled for Friday is inspiring fevered thumb-typists to ponder life without mobile e-mail. Photos: BlackBerry's big fans in D.C., Hollywood

A federal court hearing scheduled for Friday that could lead to the shutdown of BlackBerry devices throughout the United States is forcing longtime BlackBerry users to think about life without their mobile gadgets.

On Capitol Hill, where "CrackBerry" addiction is rampant, some thumb-typists are even expressing their anxiety in poetry. "'Freedom!' will the joyful say, Released from slavery today! Yet others'll suffer horrid angst if their little screens go blank," Larry Neal, deputy staff director for communications at the U.S. House of Representatives' Energy and Commerce Committee, wrote in an 18-line poem.

BlackBerry

Tongue-in-cheek poetry aside, to millions of BlackBerry users, there's nothing funny about Friday's court hearing, which could draw to an end one aspect of the long-running patent spat between Ontario-based Research In Motion and Virginia-based patent-holding firm NTP.

At the hearing in U.S. District Judge James Spencer's Richmond, Va., courtroom, lawyers for NTP, RIM and the federal government will argue over whether to that found that BlackBerry devices and software infringed on patents held by the late Thomas Campana, co-founder of the holding company. An injunction later arrived with that victory, but it was stayed and the damages were put in escrow pending the appeals process, which ended at the Supreme Court's door earlier this year. Given that the fundamental question of infringement has withstood the appeals process, NTP will ask for another injunction during Friday's hearing.

"I'm shocked that RIM hasn't settled," said Gary Abelev, a patent attorney with the New York law firm Dorsey & Whitney. The company had the opportunity to settle the case for $450 million last year, but that deal fell through. An injunction would prevent the sale of RIM's primary source of revenue in its largest market, effectively crippling the company.

RIM's answer to a possible injunction is a so-called workaround. The company earlier this month revealed sketchy details of the software-based workaround it says will be made available for download if an injunction occurs.

NTP is likely to argue that the workaround violates the same claims in the patents, and numerous hearings will probably follow, Abelev said. If the workaround is declared invalid, RIM is back to square one with nothing to show for millions in legal fees, he said.

RIM's other hope is that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office strikes down all of NTP's patents. The BlackBerry received a boost Wednesday when the USPTO issued a final rejection of one of the five patents in question, but NTP can appeal that decision through several more avenues, extending the case even further.

Watching and waiting
On Capitol Hill, all 100 senators, 435 House members and myriad staffers tote BlackBerrys. "It might be a nice change," said one Senate aide, who asked to remain anonymous. "Instead of looking at my BlackBerry the first thing in the morning, I might actually be able to take a shower without work on my mind."

Lawyers at the Los Angeles law firm Allen & Matkins are less amused at the prospect of losing their BlackBerrys. The firm's chief technology officer, Frank Gillman, is counting on RIM's workaround to keep his legal team in contact with clients, he said in an e-mail interview.

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