Week in review: Last call for BlackBerry?

As users of popular service watch anxiously, judge holds off on decision that could lead to a U.S. shutdown.

BlackBerry users will have to wait a little longer to find out whether the service will be shut down.

In a hearing Friday between NTP and Research In Motion over the popular service, U.S. District Judge James Spencer did not issue an immediate ruling, saying he would take the matter under advisement.

Lawyers for NTP on Friday asked Spencer to issue an updated $126 million judgment as soon as possible against the BlackBerry manufacturer, covering all of the devices it says infringed NTP patents through November of last year. They also called for an injunction against RIM's U.S. service.

The judge said he expected to release an order related to damages before releasing one related to the injunction. He also scolded the companies for not coming to a settlement on their own.

"In plain words, the case should have been settled, but it hasn't, so I have to deal with that reality," Spencer said.

Leading up to the hearing, longtime BlackBerry users were on tenterhooks thinking 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.

NTP successfully sued RIM for patent infringement in 2002 and won an injunction, stayed pending appeal, to halt most sales of RIM's BlackBerry wireless e-mail device and service in the United States. NTP has already said it will wait 30 days before shutting down the service, though it's not clear when that countdown would start. (For everything you need to know about the case, click here.)

A number of government users have said they're counting on assurances that the public sector will get a reprieve allowing it to stay online, even if their corporate counterparts lose access. NTP specified in briefs before the hearing that government users should be exempt from its injunction, in order to assuage concerns that BlackBerry service would be interrupted in the event of a national emergency. RIM attorneys, however, argued Friday that separating out government users would be "wholly impractical" and that it was unclear who would fit into which categories.

CNET News.com readers expressed outrage at the companies, courts and even Congress.

"If Congress loses access maybe then they would actually see that people are harmed in these cases and go and get some work done to fix the broken patent system and the excessive damage awards being given out all the time," wrote Tom Philo in News.com's TalkBack forum.

Also on Friday, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a second final rejection of one of the five patents at issue in the case. The Patent Office has already issued nonfinal actions rejecting the patent claims, but a final rejection is required before the appeals process can begin.

Spencer had earlier rejected a request by the U.S. Justice Department to hold additional proceedings on how to exempt government users from a potential shutdown of the BlackBerry service.

Naked ruling
More courtroom intrigue came when a federal judge ruled that portions of Google's popular image search feature, which displays small thumbnail versions of images found on other Web sites, likely violate U.S. copyright law. The judge ruled that Perfect 10, an adult-oriented Web site featuring "beautiful natural women" in the nude, has shown that Google image search probably infringes copyright law "by creating and displaying thumbnail copies of its photographs."

Google said it plans to appeal the injunction, and predicted it will have no effect on the "vast majority" of its image searches. Perfect 10 sued Google for copyright infringement in November 2004, and then in August 2005, asked for an injunction to halt Google from allegedly copying, displaying and distributing more than 3,000 Perfect 10 photos.

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