Squashing the BlackBerry?

They call it "CrackBerry" for a reason. Once you've gotten your hands on a BlackBerry, the wireless email device now carried by more than 3 million people across the country, life is never the same.

Now imagine that one morning you wake up and your BlackBerry never works again. Unthinkable? Hardly. Because of an ongoing patent dispute, there is a decent chance that Research in Motion (RIM) could face the ultimate penalty for a company found guilty of violating a U.S. patent--an injunction against selling its product anywhere in the United States.

For RIM, which wouldn't comment, the saga has been a long one. Tiny NTP Inc., an Arlington, Virginia-based company founded by a patent lawyer and a now-deceased inventor, first accused RIM of violating its patents in 2001. In 2002, a jury ruled in favor of NTP, and the two companies have been locked in a variety of bitter appeals and countercharges ever since. In March 2005, the two companies finally agreed to a settlement of $450 million, but it mysteriously collapsed.

Then came a twist. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reexamined NTP's original patents, and last April issued preliminary rulings that they were invalid. A final decision may take months or years, and RIM has asked that any final court ruling be delayed until then. But it's not clear whether that will happen. So the BlackBerry could be crushed even though the patents may be worthless.

The prospect has terrified not only the addicts but also the feds, who say the BlackBerry is key to government operations. So a settlement is still likely. "We've publicly announced that we'd like to resolve matters," says Jim Wallace, NTP's lead counsel and a partner at Wiley Rein & Fielding. "[But] it won't be the end of the world if I have to sit down at a computer to send email." Maybe not. But it'd sure feel that way.

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