A federal judge on Wednesday set a Feb. 24 hearing date to consider an injunction that could shut down BlackBerry wireless e-mail service in the United States.
This follows the Supreme Courts official refusal on Monday to hear an appeal in the ongoing battle that has loomed over BlackBerry customers for years.
The Supreme Courts refusal marked the latest in a series of setbacks for Research in Motion, since NTP sued the BlackBerry maker for alleged patent infringement in 2001.
U.S. District Judge James Spencer ruled in favor of NTP in 2003, instructing RIM to halt its sales of BlackBerry devices and services in the United States until NTPs patents run out in 2012.
Spencer stayed the ruling, however, pending appeal. Since then, the case has gone through several appeals and failed settlement attempts. The Feb. 24 hearing could precede a decision to shutter BlackBerry service as it currently stands.
In the meantime, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has been evaluating the validity of NTPs patents; the office initially rejected NTPs claims in March, and it has been re-evaluating them for months.
The Patent Office has indicated that it intends to reject all of NTPs claims eventually, in which the case will be null and void. Industry experts say the process could take several months, though.
“Despite the Patent Offices dedicated re-exam group, I would expect that [a ruling by the Board of Patent Appeals and Interferences]— the final agency decision— will not occur in this case until around October,” said Stephen Maebius, an attorney at Foley & Lardner, in Washington, who worked at the USPTO in the early 1990s.
Judge Spencer has said that he does not intend to wait for the USPTO to make final decisions on the disputed patents, although he has yet to issue an injunction.
RIM maintains that the company has tested and readied a legal technical workaround solution that would let the company continue offering its mobile e-mail service even if the judge goes through with an injunction before the Patent Office makes its ruling.
The company has been vague on details. In an earnings call late last month, however, RIM Chairman and Co-CEO Jim Balsillie, in Waterloo, Ontario, said the company will reveal details of a workaround “very soon,” that it could ship latent in future products and that the workaround is “different at the absolute fundamental aspect,” meaning it will not violate any of NTPs patents.