Blackberry suits, rivals dog RIM

In addition to a long-running lawsuit in the U.S. that is expected to come to a head soon, Blackberry-maker Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) is now also facing a series of lawsuits in Europe. This week, a five-day hearing began in the U.K. involving several patent-related complaints.

The U.K. suits involve Inpro Licensing SARL, a Luxembourg company that owns and enforces patents. Late last year, RIM won a case filed by Inpro in 2003 relating to a patent involving the thumb wheels used in some Blackberry devices.

Early this year, RIM UK filed a suit against Inpro in the High Court of Justice in London, seeking to declare an Inpro patent as invalid, according to documents filed by RIM with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The patent covers a proxy server system for computers accessing servers.

In July, Inpro filed a countersuit in the High Court, claiming that RIM was infringing on the patent. At the same time, Inpro filed an application to amend the patent and also filed a suit against T-Mobile UK Ltd., an operator that sells Blackberry devices.

The hearing to consider all of these suits began on Monday and is expected to last all this week.

Inpro has also filed a suit in Germany against T-Mobile for infringing on the same proxy server patent via its sales of Blackberry devices. T-Mobile said it will ask RIM to cover any losses related to the case, which is expected to be heard in January.

The European suits follow a long legal battle that RIM has fought with NTP Inc. in the U.S. That suit has threatened to shut down the Blackberry service, although recently RIM said it had developed a work-around to avoid using the technology that may conflict with NTP’s patent.

All of the lawsuits serve as a sort of comeuppance for RIM, said Caroline Gabriel, research director of Rethink Research Associates. “They were so aggressive about [intellectual property],” she said, of RIM’s initial entrance to the market. She says that stance essentially attracted companies to use the same weapon against RIM. “It’s come back to haunt them,” she said.

The lawsuits are happening just as RIM is facing increasing competition. “Even if they win, it’s a bit late to make a huge difference,” said Gabriel. “All their key partners are looking elsewhere anyway.” Nokia Corp., for example, licenses RIM’s software and for a time onlookers thought Nokia would spur RIM’s future business. But now Nokia has developed its own push e-mail offering and offers RIM’s product as one option of many.

In addition, Microsoft Corp. is pushing into the mobile market, offering its software for much lower prices than RIM, Gabriel said.

Last week, RIM lowered its expectations on subscribers for its third and fourth quarters, blaming delayed launches of devices. Subscriber additions should be about eight per cent lower then expected, the company said.

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