The latest volley in a bitter legal feud over the popular BlackBerry came Thursday when tiny patent holder NTP Inc. accused the wireless e-mail device's maker, Research In Motion Ltd. (RIMM), of using its political clout to try to sway the U.S. patent office.
"NTP believes that RIM has utilized its money, power and political influence to overcome its complete defeat in the court system and to inappropriately influence the U.S. Patent Office process," Arlington-based NTP said in a statement Thursday.
NTP's comments in this he-said, she-said spat came one day before a federal judge in Richmond hears arguments on a possible injunction on U.S. BlackBerry sales and service. Analysts believe an actual BlackBerry blackout is highly unlikely, but the uncertainties in the case are rattling some of the more than 3 million BlackBerry users in this country.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has issued a final rejection of one of five patents at the core of the court case; it is expected to invalidate all of them. NTP, however, claims the agency has been pressured by lobbyists and officials from Canada, where the BlackBerry's meteoric success has made Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM a corporate darling.
A spokeswoman for the patent office called NTP's allegations unfounded. The agency "is re-examining the NTP patents in accordance with all aspects of all applicable rules and laws," spokeswoman Brigid Quinn wrote in an e-mail.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, NTP said it obtained a number of government documents, including a November 2005 letter that Canada's then-minister of industry, David L. Emerson, wrote to U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez.
In the letter, Emerson, now minister of international trade, asks that the patent office, part of the U.S. Commerce Department, publicize its timetable for the patent reviews. He notes NTP was expected to request an injunction, and that the firm had pointed out the possibility of the court case ending before the close of the patent office's proceedings.
"I believe that we have a shared responsibility in maintaining a North American marketplace that provides certainty and predictability to consumers and investors alike," Emerson wrote. "Ensuring that the courts have the benefit of the USPTO's expert review of these patents, or at least know when to expect such a decision, would, in my view, support these objectives."
In an unusual move, the patent office responded almost immediately by releasing a detailed schedule of all the proceedings, NTP said.
A spokesman for the Commerce Department declined to comment. RIM representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.
It's unclear whether the patent office's latest actions will influence U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer, who will begin weighing an injunction and damages on Friday. The agency is far behind the court system, and its process could last more than a year with appeals.
Even if the judge threatens to enforce an injunction, analysts say an actual shutdown is very unlikely because RIM will either settle the case at the last minute or introduce technology to work around NTP's patents.