US judge says stay unlikely in RIM patent case

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RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) - Research in Motion Ltd, maker of the BlackBerry handheld email device, suffered a setback in a potentially damaging patent infringement suit when a judge said on Wednesday he was unlikely to await a US patent office review.

US District Judge James Spencer told a hearing he would consider whether a disputed US$450 settlement with patent holding company NTP Inc was enforceable before deciding whether to go forward with an injunction that could halt BlackBerry sales.

The US Patent and Trademark Office earlier this year completed a re-examination of eight NTP patents and issued initial rulings rejecting all of the claims -- but it could take years for a final conclusion.

"Frankly it's highly unlikely that I'm going to stay these proceedings...I don't run (patent office) business and they don't run mine," Spencer said.

The company had no comment on the court hearing.

American Technology Research analyst Rob Sanderson said RIM risked imposition of an injunction before the patent office completes its work.

"It takes one of the positive scenarios away from RIM, taking the judge's comments at face value, which I think we should," said Sanderson.

If there is no settlement and an injunction is imposed, RIM could implement a "workaround" solution using different technology that it says does not infringe on NTP's patents, Sanderson said.

RIM disclosed plans for the workaround in June. Co-chief executive Jim Balsillie recently reiterated to Reuters it has this option and is "committed to supporting our market".

NTP filed its suit against RIM in 2001 in US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia. A jury found in favour of NTP in 2002.

In 2003, Spencer granted an injunction that would have halted US sales of the BlackBerry and shut down its service, but stayed the injunction pending appeal.

An appeals court in August scaled back the ruling against RIM, but upheld some patent infringement claims.

Requests by RIM to get the courts to stay the case, including a recent request to US Chief Justice John Roberts, have failed.

RIM and NTP reached a settlement in March, but the deal fell apart in June in a dispute over how to interpret its terms. RIM wants the settlement enforced.

Spencer called on Wednesday for briefs from both sides on the settlement issue.

"I intend to move swiftly," Spencer said. "I've spent enough of my life and time on NTP and RIM."

Additional reporting by Jeffrey Hodgson in Toronto.

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