BlackBerry Battle: RIM/NTP Patent Case Takes New Turn

BlackBerry-maker RIM could soon find itself under new legal pressure. Lawyers for NTP, the company with which RIM settled a high-profile patent dispute for more than $600 million in 2006, are reportedly seeking more information regarding how a pact between the BlackBerry-maker and the U.S. Justice Department affected the case.

If you're a long-time BlackBerry user or "CrackBerry addict," you very likely remember a time just a few years ago when the continued existence of your precious handheld--and its addictive "push" e-mail technology--were in question due to a high-profile lawsuit between Research In Motion (RIM) and patent company NTP.

RIM Logo with U.S. Department of Justice Seal
RIM Logo with U.S. Department of Justice Seal

That multi-year case ended in 2006 in a settlement, with RIM shelling out some $612.5 million to satisfy NTP's patent infringement claims. And that was that...at least until this month when the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals heard a Freedom of Information Act-based (FOIA) lawsuit from NTP, meant to unearth more detail about the relationship between RIM and the U.S. Department of Justice at the time of the settlement, Law.com reports.

It's no secret now that the U.S. government is one of RIM's largest and most valued customers; RIM's devices and associated corporate infrastructure have long been the choice of IT departments that require the strongest security safeguards available. And the Justice Department fits that description.

In fact, RIM gained its reputation as the most secure enterprise mobility option largely because of its continued work with various international governments and the security certifications that came from said relationships.

But right around the time that RIM and NTP reached a settlement agreement, NTP reportedly discovered that RIM was closer to the Justice Department than NTP previously understood.

To make a long, boring complex story short(er), a Richmond, Va., jury found in 2002 that RIM had violated various NTP patents. RIM appealed the decision, and in 2005, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit panel issued two rulings that ended up sending the case back to court, Law.com says.

(Check out the BlackBerry on the Edge page for our past coverage of the RIM/NTP patent proceedings.)

Also in 2005, right around the time that the appeal court handed down the rulings, RIM's external legal counsel allegedly reached out to the Department of Justice to see if it could be convinced that continued BlackBerry service was in the public interest, since so many government officials employed the devices, Law.com reports.

In November of 2005, a common-interest agreement was reportedly reached between the RIM and U.S. government, and that same month, the Justice department intervened in the new case, filing a statement of interest that said, in a nutshell, that the government had a "substantial interest" in the continued availability of BlackBerry service, according to Law.com.

However, NTP attorneys didn't find out about that agreement until the spring of 2006, when the case was settled, Law.com says. Now NTP says that it wants more details about the agreement.

From the Law.com post:

"Hundreds of e-mails and other communications between RIM and the government -- what [NTP] lawyers describe as an "intense lobbying" campaign by RIM -- are the centerpiece of the records dispute."

Today, Justice Department officials are refusing to make said communications available to NTP lawyers, saying that the department needs to honor and protect past confidences with companies with which it enters into common-interest agreements.

Currently there are no regulations or set rules for common-interest agreements at the Department of Justice, according to Law.com, but "supervisor'" approval is typically required.

Though such a common-interest agreement is perfectly legal, the NTP lawyers are pursuing more information regarding it as a possible avenue for pursuing the case further.

It remains to be seen what exactly will come of NTP's new FOIA suit, but anyone who remembers what it was like to consider life without BlackBerry service will want to keep a close eye on this one. NTP benefitted from the settlement of the patent lawsuit with RIM in 2006. But if the court grants the FOIA request, and more details regarding the Justice deal emerge, new legal rules around common-interest agreements could be forged and RIM even could face new legal pressure related to this case.

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