Shares of Research In Motion ( RIMM) slipped Wednesday as the company got more bad news in a long-running patent dispute. At a court hearing Wednesday in Virginia, U.S. District Judge James Spencer said it was "highly unlikely" that he would delay the case until the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office makes a final decision on the validity of patents held by NTP, according to a report from Reuters. "I don't run (patent office) business and they don't run mine," Spencer said, according to Reuters. RIM can still officially request such a delay, but Spencer's comments indicate how he will rule, said Jim Wallace, an attorney with Wiley, Rein & Fielding, which represents NTP. The judge's leaning is a blow to RIM, the provider of the popular BlackBerry pagers and wireless email service. In an initial ruling, the patent office has declared invalid all of NTP's patents, a fact that RIM has unsuccessfully tried to introduce into the court case. Even if the patent office later reinstates the patents on appeal, that process could take years, giving RIM more time to negotiate a settlement -- or to go about its business. RIM representatives did not return calls seeking comment. In a statement emailed to TheStreet.com, RIM made no mention of the judge's leanings on a potential delay. Instead, the company said it planned to file a request for the delay on Thursday, noting that the patent office has denied NTP's motion there to delay proceedings and indicated that it will make its latest decision on NTP's patents within two months. RIM said it was "pleased" with the outcome of the hearing, saying that the judge decided to follow its suggestion that he consider whether a settlement was previously reached (and now disputed) between the two companies before moving on potential injunction hearings.
"No injunction-related proceedings have been scheduled at this point and the court will not consider or schedule such proceedings if it first determines that the parties reached an enforceable settlement," RIM noted in its statement. The judge is unlikely to find that the companies reached a definitive settlement, said Wallace. But either way, the judge has indicated that he will rule quickly in the case, he said. "By Thanksgiving, we will know whether we have a settlement and we'll know whether we have a stay in the case," he said. Despite RIM's interpretation of the proceedings, investors seemed particularly displeased by Wednesday's developments. In recent trading, shares were off $2.23, or 3.5%, to $61.63. NTP's patents, which cover wireless email technology, are at the heart of the dispute between the company and RIM. Should RIM ultimately be unable to settle the case, it runs the risk of having its BlackBerry service shut down by the courts. Indeed, in the first round of the case, NTP won an injunction that would have shut down RIM's service. However, that injunction was immediately stayed and was overturned on appeal. The case is back at the district court level after an appeals court largely upheld a ruling that RIM had infringed on several of NTP's patents claims. In addition to potentially considering a delay request from RIM, the first business of the district court will be to decide whether an aborted settlement the two companies negotiated earlier this year should be enforced. Under a schedule decided Monday, the two companies will file arguments with the court over the next two weeks about the settlement. As part of that settlement agreement, RIM would have paid NTP $450 million. The agreement fell apart over a dispute about its terms.
RIM has suffered a string of setbacks in the case over the last month. First, the appeals court
declined the company's request to re-hear its appeal before an expanded, en banc panel of judges. Following that, both the appeals court and the Supreme Court denied the company's request to delay further proceedings in the case until the Supreme Court decided whether to review RIM's appeal. RIM's stock has largely traded in line with its showing in the court case. For the year, the company's shares are down 27%