Some people make jokes about Washington wonks being attached to their BlackBerry e-mail devices, but the U.S. government takes the service very seriously.
The Justice Department has filed a legal brief in a patent dispute, asking a federal court to delay any immediate shutdown of the popular wireless e-mail system to ensure that state and federal workers can continue to use their devices.
The government stepped in as the Canadian company that makes BlackBerry, Research In Motion Ltd., reaches the end of its legal rope in an ongoing patent-infringement lawsuit brought by an Arlington-based intellectual-property holding company called NTP Inc. A federal judge ruled that Research In Motion violated several patents in 2002, but the company has since managed to fight off a shutdown of its U.S. operations by disputing the validity of NTP's patents, as well as appealing the 2002 verdict.
The Justice Department, filing on behalf of various government agencies, requested a stay of 90 days to put together an electronic database of government users whose service should not be cut off in the event Research In Motion loses its final legal battles and does not reach a settlement. In addition, the "statement of interest" filed by Justice said the government is concerned "there may be a substantial public interest that may be impaired" by shutting down the service.
There are more than 3 million BlackBerry users in the United States, approximately 10 percent of whom are state and federal government employees who use the devices to keep in contact when out of the office.
NTP already assured that it would continue service for government agencies, but Justice said in its filing that "there does not appear to be a simple manner in which RIM can identify which users of BlackBerr[y]s are part of the federal government."
Phone calls requesting comment from Research In Motion were not returned yesterday.
"It's a very disingenuous, misleading pleading," James Wallace, an attorney for NTP, said of the Justice statement. "We do not agree that there is a problem. It is no problem for the carriers to identify who the U.S. government or state government subscribers are," he said. "We've known for three years that RIM has been in willful infringement."
Last month, a federal circuit court of appeals declined to stay the injunction against RIM while it appealed its case, and subsequently the Supreme Court declined to hear RIM's case. At a hearing Wednesday, a judge in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia said he is probably not going to stay RIM's case pending the U.S Patent and Trademark Office's review of NTP's patents.