A view from the BlackBerry courtroom

Seemingly exasperated judge makes men in black suits chuckle during Friday's RIM court hearing.

Anne Broache Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Anne Broache
covers Capitol Hill goings-on and technology policy from Washington, D.C.
Anne Broache
3 min read
RICHMOND, Va.--Whoever thought that something as dry as a patent infringement lawsuit could become a spectator sport?

Granted, it's well-established that the long-running patent fight between tiny NTP and BlackBerry maker Research In Motion isn't just any patent suit. It's a case involving a mobile e-mailing gadget used by at least 3.2 million users on American turf--and not just the lawyers and politicos who are so often the butt of "CrackBerry" jokes.

No, everyone from police officers and hurricane crisis volunteers to doctors overseeing organ and tissue transplants depend on the device to get their jobs done, those subscribers have argued in filings with the court. And they're not about to see their mobile e-mail service shut off--jury findings of patent infringements notwithstanding--without a fight.

So maybe the mob of dark suits absorbing the morning sunlight in front of the U.S. District Court building on Main Street here wasn't so surprising.

It was 7:50 a.m., the courthouse wouldn't open for another 10 minutes, and courtroom seating wasn't scheduled to start for another half hour, though the guards would ultimately direct spectators in before then. But at least 50 people, who were either eager to see their civil law system at work or who have a serious stake in this multimillion dollar patent fight, snaked down an entrance ramp and pooled on the sidewalk.

A little unscientific eavesdropping and some small talk revealed that many were lawyers, journalists and investors. They came from New York (where there are lots of lawyers, investors and journalists), Virginia (NTP's home turf), and Ontario (RIM's home turf), among other locales. Across the street was a gaggle of news cameras, primed to capture whatever action they could find outside since cameras are banned from federal courts.

Handing over the contraband
When the doors opened at 8 a.m., the lawyers, reporters and legal rubberneckers filed inside for required "contraband" screening. Those who didn't heed the day's preannounced ban on carrying in electronics had to deposit their cell phones, pagers, and, yes, BlackBerries, in resealable plastic bags, which were stowed in bins labeled by the first letter of the scofflaws' last names.

Then came the power-walk to nab seats in Judge James Spencer's third-floor courtroom, and for good reason. A full 40 minutes before RIM and NTP would launch their arguments, the dark, wood-paneled room, which can accommodate about 120 people, was already full. Sensing a possessive crowd on his hands, a jovial court marshal announced that the court wasn't letting anyone else in, "so if you need to use the facilities, you won't lose your seat." The rest filed off to two spillover courtrooms, where there were video screens set up to watch the live legal theater.

And theatrics there were. Amid a lengthy speech about outcry from various industries over a potential BlackBerry injunction, attorney Henry Bunsow cued up a PowerPoint slide titled "NTP's public interest evidence." Beneath those words was blank, white space. Bunsow paused for effect. "I don't mean to make a joke of this, but no countervailing NTP evidence has been presented to this court at all," he told the judge.

There was also humor. One spillover courtroom roared with laughter when Judge Spencer, a no-nonsense legal veteran who'd scarcely uttered more than a sentence during the nearly four hours of arguments, adopted a sarcastic tone. "You say there will be a catastrophic effect and Western civilization will be shaken," he said, his voice betraying little amusement, describing critics of a BlackBerry shutdown.

When the hearing concluded without Spencer making a decision, it wasn't tough to pick out the dozens of other reporters present. They were the ones dashing for the exit--in my case, on to a Wi-Fi-equipped Starbucks--all intent on delivering the word that this match is, to no one's surprise, far from over.