February 24, 2006 4:12 PM PST

A view from the BlackBerry courtroom

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.

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8 comments

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isnt
Waterloo RIM's home base? you know there is more than one city in Canada
Posted by volterwd (466 comments )
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The world will not end....
Here's the funny thing I hope everyone, including the judge gets. We're only talking about 3.2 million users out of 1 billion. That's 1 BILLION!

Puhleaze. The politicans on capital hill are caving/bending rules that are in their best interest of keeping their blackberries running so that they can chat with their cohorts and mistresses.
Posted by Web-JIVE (9 comments )
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Extortion
Why is the judge in this case even allowing it to go forward? The
USPO has formally rejected two of the five patents, and they have
indicated the other 3 are invalid. NTP has no right to any
settlement. Why is the judge allowing what appears to be
extortion?
Posted by zmonster (272 comments )
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Extortion
Why is the judge in this case even allowing it to go forward? The
USPO has formally rejected two of the five patents, and they have
indicated the other 3 are invalid. NTP has no right to any
settlement. Why is the judge allowing what appears to be
extortion?
Posted by zmonster (272 comments )
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RIM case hints at future IP-induced crises
RIM's "customers" should lay off the posturing as to how a U.S. shutdown will end the world. The only world that will end will be that of Waterloo, Ontario company that may have built its little empire on somebody else's patents (or intellectual property), or whatever.

RIM's customers such as the U.S. government have had lots of time now to make plans; the judge should pull the plug and get on with rewarding the patent holder(s).

As I understand it the patent holder(s) are entitled to some amount of money and they can keep that money even if the patents are later ruled against. Moreover, the patent validity rulings will be subject to appeals themselves, so we do not know if the patents actually will ever be zeoed out.

What RIM's experience forewarns is that companies must ensure that they are not transgressing on others' patents or IP BEFORE they use same to conquer this or that market. RIM and its customers in this context have only themselves to blame, as all know that IP laws exist, and that the law is there to be observed. The U.S. government should know this above all, and should not get special consideration if an injunction is granted. Let the U.S. government live by the same law everyone else must live by.
Posted by PolarUpgrade (103 comments )
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Yeah, surrrrrrrrrrrre...
Sure, all of Congress will give up their BlackBerries. And Paul Bunyan will show up in the Pacific Northwest to save all the trees; Santa will arrive from the North Pole dispensing presents to all of the good little boys and girls; and the Tooth Fairy will sneak a dollar under your pillow.
Posted by MercilessUnicorn (31 comments )
Link Flag
Patents & Copyright vs. advancement of human civilization
This continuing attempt to "wall off" ideas from those who will not/cannot pay outrageous fees threatens to set back the advancement of humanity on so many levels. As the practice of claiming "dibs" on some idea or concept becomes more widespread, no one will be able to advance any field of study without contravening someones claim of ownership. In a world where every intellectual road street and bike -path are toll roads, most will be forced to stay home. Remember that in the last 2000 years most significant human advances were obtained by building on the works of others. What if Isaac Newton had copyrighted the calculus? Where would human progress be today? Perhaps research and development is best handled by the University system and funded by a universal IP development tax. All new developments would then be freely available to those who wished to exploit them. But no exclusive rights would exist.
Posted by Willie Winkie (123 comments )
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