BlackBerry Sues Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApps for Infringing Patents

In its lawsuit, BlackBerry alleges that the companies developed and use messaging technologies based on BlackBerry messaging patents.

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BlackBerry, which has evolved from a specialized smartphone vendor into an enterprise software company, is suing Facebook and its Instagram and WhatsApp subsidiaries claiming these companies are infringing on messaging patents long held by BlackBerry.

The seven-count, 117-page lawsuit, which was filed March 6, alleges that Facebook and its subsidiaries "created mobile messaging applications that co-opt BlackBerry's innovations, using a number of the innovative security, user interface, and functionality enhancing features that made BlackBerry's products such a critical and commercial success in the first place."

Among the BlackBerry-invented features that have been infringed upon, according to the lawsuit, are security improvements including "improved cryptographic techniques that establish and maintain security over user messages and provide the requisite trust necessary for user adoption of a messaging platform for their communication needs," as well as user interface improvements for mobile devices. That would include the use of timestamps in messages and the ability to tag friends and family in social media photographs.

BlackBerry also claims the three social networks infringe on patents for features "allowing users to more easily interact while playing electronic games," while also enabling status updates and reducing power consumption and improving battery life in mobile devices, according to BlackBerry.

"These features, all invented by BlackBerry, are 'table stakes' for modern mobile messaging and social networking," the company states in its lawsuit.

By infringing on BlackBerry's messaging patents, Facebook and its subsidiaries have used the company's intellectual property to compete with it in the mobile messaging space, according to the lawsuit. "The importance of mobile messaging is emphasized by the reported $19 billion dollars Facebook spent to acquire WhatsApp."

By infringing on BlackBerry patents the defendants have "succeeded in diverting consumers away from BlackBerry's products and services and toward those of Defendants," resulting in a "substantial and undeserved [economic] windfall" for Facebook and its companies, while "depriving BlackBerry of revenue to which it is entitled," the lawsuit states.

Facebook and its subsidiaries used the BlackBerry patents without permission in several of their applications, including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp Messenger and Instagram applications, according to the lawsuit.

In a statement sent to eWEEK, BlackBerry said it wants to see Facebook and its subsidiaries pay BlackBerry for the use of its intellectual property. 

"We have a lot of respect for Facebook and the value they've placed on messaging capabilities, some of which were invented by BlackBerry," wrote spokeswoman Sarah McKinney in an email. "As a cybersecurity and embedded software leader, BlackBerry's view is that Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp could make great partners in our drive toward a securely connected future, and we continue to hold this door open to them. However, we have a strong claim that Facebook has infringed on our intellectual property, and after several years of dialogue, we also have an obligation to our shareholders to pursue appropriate legal remedies." 

Paul Grewal, Facebook's deputy general counsel, told eWEEK that the company is ready to take on BlackBerry in court. 

“Blackberry’s suit sadly reflects the current state of its messaging business," wrote Grewal. "Having abandoned its efforts to innovate, Blackberry is now looking to tax the innovation of others. We intend to fight.” 

Several IT analysts told eWEEK they can understand BlackBerry's approach to taking the companies to court, but that the company's ultimate victory is not certain. 

"Judging by their recent history, it looks like Blackberry is hoping that they can make money by monetizing their patent library," said Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. "It's a valid way to protect your intellectual property, but only if the claims are specific.” 

While Blackberry has received court settlements from Qualcomm and a few other much smaller companies in recent years, "taking on Facebook is a different matter entirely," said Olds. "The social media Goliath has said that they're going to fight until, assumedly, the bitter end. Blackberry isn't going to get them to roll over unless they have a rock-solid case, and even then, Facebook has the resources to fight for a long, long time." 

Another analyst, Charles King of Pund-IT, said that "BlackBerry has demonstrated a willingness to pursue legal action when and where it feels other companies are abusing its substantial IP portfolio," which contains as many as 44,000 patents. 

Meanwhile, "Facebook's attempt to cast aspersions on BlackBerry's strategy is hardly original. It's about what you'd expect from a large, profitable company accused of IP theft," said King. "But that financial success and deep pockets also increases the likelihood that the two companies will eventually reach some kind of settlement." 

Rob Enderle, principal analyst with Enderle Group, said BlackBerry's strategy in filing the lawsuit makes sense since "not protecting this property would be seen as negligent and irresponsible." 

BlackBerry CEO John Chen had "no choice but to sue if Facebook didn't license their technology, which is not only within BlackBerry's power, but as a software/services vendor it is a good deal of what they do," said Enderle. 

Facebook came to market “during a time when schools seemed to be teaching that software patents and copyrights were evil, they are almost hardwired to violate them even though the laws that support both forms largely remain unchanged."