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BlackBerry dodges a bullet

The maker of BlackBerry hand-held e-mail devices, and the 3 million Americans who use them, dodged a bullet in federal court today when the judge in the massive patent lawsuit against the company put off a ruling that could have shut the service down.

A tiny Virginia firm claims it filed patents first for a system to connect desktop computers wirelessly to portable e-mail devices, and a federal judge has found that BlackBerry infringed on those patents. There's no finding that BlackBerry stole the idea, but under patent law, that doesn't matter: whoever files first is normally entitled to licensing fees if someone comes along later and turns the same idea into a product.

A federal judge in Virginia had threatened to issue an order today directing BlackBerry to stop using the system. And even though BlackBerry claims it has worked up an alternate system that would keep BlackBerries working, users were nervous, because the "workaround" is untested. The federal government was so worried it asked for an exception to make sure government BlackBerries would not go dark.

Also today, BlackBerry's lawyers say, the U.S. Patent Office rejected the Virginia company's claims, so their side may be weakening.  Though it's still possible BlackBerry's maker may end up having to pay the Virginia firm some kind of licensing fee, that's no longer a certainty.