FAQ: Will BlackBerrys be shut down?

A confusing legal saga is nearing a conclusion in a Virginia courtroom, but plenty of questions remain about how this case evolved, and what remains to be decided.

BlackBerry fans have been holding their breath as a five-year intellectual property fight that could lead to the shutdown of their beloved mobile devices heads into its final weeks.

Lawyers for Research In Motion and patent holder NTP are scheduled to give final arguments later this month before a Virginia judge who could reimpose an injunction on the sales of BlackBerry devices in the U.S. NTP has won several court victories so far, but RIM has prevailed on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to call NTP's patents into question.

The case is being closely watched by the tech industry amid calls for patent reform and by anxious BlackBerry users wondering how they'll keep the mobile e-mail flowing in the event of a shutdown. Just to spice things up, RIM claims that it has a "workaround" that could allow it to bypass NTP's patents simply by upgrading its software.

Why might I wake up one day in late March to a dead BlackBerry?
As its patent-infringement defense against NTP winds down, RIM is scheduled to argue on Feb. 24 against an injunction on the sale and support of BlackBerry devices in the U.S. After a jury trial in 2002, NTP won an injunction against RIM that was stayed in 2003 pending an appeals process.

Various appeals courts have struck down a few portions of that original decision, but have agreed with most of the basic infringement claims and ordered the case returned to the lower court. Since the courts agreed that most of NTP's claims were infringed by RIM, NTP is expected to ask for an injunction. The company has agreed to give RIM's customers a 30-day window to switch to other providers and will allow RIM to continue providing the service to agencies of the U.S. government.

Who or what is NTP?
NTP is a holding company that exists to enforce patents issued to the late Thomas Campana, who founded NTP with his lawyer, Donald Stout, to capitalize on his inventions. It has signed licensing deals with Nokia, Good Technology, Palm and Visto.

Why does NTP want an injunction?
NTP doesn't make any products or provide any services, so it won't benefit from shutting down RIM in the competitive sense. But the cost that an injunction would pose to RIM, its customers and investors is believed to be so prohibitive that many analysts believe RIM will settle the case rather than risk angering its base.

RIM and NTP tentatively agreed to settle this case last March for $450 million, but the deal fell through. It's believed a new settlement could fetch NTP as much as $1 billion.

Why doesn't RIM just settle the case now?
Several reasons. There's always the possibility the judge might decline to re-impose the injunction, although legal experts won't bet on it given that the appeals court and trial judge have both found that RIM is infringing on NTP's patents. On Wednesday, the Department of Justice weighed in and filed a brief arguing against an injunction, saying that it will be very hard to ensure government access to the service while denying the use of BlackBerry devices to others.

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by Bridget Carey