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Feds want their BlackBerrys

As NTP and Research In Motion duke it out over a patent infringement suit, the feds weigh in as customers.

As patent-holding firm NTP and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion duke it out in court over a patent infringement lawsuit, the federal government has weighed in as a customer.

Bottom line: The feds want their BlackBerry paging service developed by RIM, according to court documents filed last week in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Virginia.

The filing comes as the federal court prepares to reach a key decision next week in the contentious patent lawsuit. Judge James Spencer is expected to rule as early as Nov. 22 on the validity of a $450 million settlement agreement that the parties signed in March.

NTP, which seeks an injunction against RIM's BlackBerry on the grounds that it violates NTP's patents, argued that the settlement agreement is ambiguous. RIM contends that it is clearly outlined.

Meanwhile, the government wants to continue using BlackBerry pagers, regardless of the court's ultimate decision.

"The language of this injunction would literally prohibit RIM from providing the services that would be essential for the federal government," the Department of Justice said in its court filing. "Moreover, there does not appear to be a simple manner in which RIM can identify which users of BlackBerries are part of the federal government."

RIM does not maintain a list of which e-mail addresses and PIN numbers belong to government employees.

But NTP contends that RIM is able to easily gather this information from the carriers that supply service to BlackBerry customers.

"Back in February 2003, RIM acknowledged they would have to get the government's PIN numbers from the carriers. The carriers would be highly motivated to turn the information over to them, in order to keep the money flowing in," said Jim Wallace, an attorney with Wiley Rein & Fielding, who represents NTP.

The case dates back to 2001, when NTP filed a lawsuit stating that RIM's BlackBerry pager infringed on NTP's patents. In 2002, a jury ruled in NTP's favor and awarded the patent holder a $23.1 million judgment.

RIM was dealt another blow in 2003, when the court ordered an injunction to halt sales of BlackBerry pagers in the U.S. The court, however, stayed its order pending RIM's appeal.

The BlackBerry company found new hope later that year when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office ordered another review of NTP's patents. Judge Spencer, in a hearing last week, indicated that he did not plan to wait for the patent office's decision before issuing his own ruling in the case.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear RIM's case and pushed it back down to the lower court to rule on the injunction.

"We will deal with the outstanding issues, get those resolved, and deal with the injunctive relief...I intend to move swiftly on this," Spencer said, according to a transcript of a court hearing last week.

"I have spent enough of my time and life involved with NTP and RIM. So we are going to deal with this swiftly, get it out of the way, and then you all can go wherever you go when you leave me," the judge added.