Congress to lawyers: Don't take away our BlackBerrys. Please.
In a rare intervention into a private lawsuit, the chief administrator of the House of Representatives yesterday pleaded with attorneys in a patent-infringement case to settle their differences in a way that allows the popular handheld e-mailing device to continue operating.
"The device is used routinely by most members of Congress . . . as well as senior staff," wrote James M. Eagen III. Any disruption in the service "creates a serious risk to the House's critical communications and could jeopardize the public interest, particularly in the event of an emergency," he said.
Eagen wrote that Congress has invested nearly $6 million in BlackBerry technology, including issuing 3,000 of the black, wireless handsets, in part because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Eagen's worry stems from a federal court jury verdict in November that the BlackBerry infringed on patents held by NTP Inc., an Arlington holding company.
The jury awarded $23 million in damages. Legal experts said companies that win patent cases usually seek ongoing licensing fees from the infringing firms.
But NTP also is seeking an injunction that would essentially shut down the service. NTP's Washington-based attorney, James H. Wallace Jr., said the Arlington firm is negotiating to license the technology to other companies.
"This is a sorry state of affairs," Wallace said. "The U.S. Congress is defending the continued use of foreign technology that is determined to be operating unlawfully." He has told Congress that he would not seek to shut BlackBerry down until a suitable alternative was in place.
The BlackBerry is produced by Research in Motion Ltd. of Canada, which has vowed to appeal and challenge the injunction request. Eagen did not return calls for comment.