A preliminary ruling by the United States patent office yesterday undermined claims by a company whose lawsuit could shut down the BlackBerry service in the United States, the New York Times reported today.

Research in Motion, the Canadian maker of the BlackBerry, said the decision meant that the patent office had twice rejected all five patents controlled by NTP that are related to BlackBerry lawsuits, according to the Times. NTP is an intellectual property company based in Arlington, Va.

Real estate agents are among the most dedicated users of BlackBerries, and have been concerned because the legal actions could shut down the approximately 4 million Blackberries used nationally. The wireless devices send and receive e-mail and have small keyboards that replicate that of a PC.

The most recent decision clears the way for a final ruling from the patent office, which may occur by next month. But if, as expected, the final decision supports Research in Motion, NTP still has two avenues of appeal, and that process could take months or possibly years, media reports said.

In addition, it is unclear how the patent office action will affect a separate BlackBerry case going on in federal court in Virginia.

On Feb. 24, Judge James R. Spencer in Richmond, Va., will hear a request from NTP for an injunction to shut the sale and operation of BlackBerries for all account holders in the United States who are not in government or emergency services, reports said.

Judge Spencer imposed an injunction earlier, but it was put on hold while Research in Motion appealed. That process came to an end last month when the United States Supreme Court rejected a request for a hearing from the company.

It is possible that BlackBerry service in the United States could be shut within weeks of the February hearing, the Times said. Even if an injunction occurs, though, it could be prevented by a settlement between the companies. Research in Motion also says it has an alternative technology that it can introduce to prevent a shutdown.

Wednesday was the final day for submissions in advance of Judge Spencer’s hearing, reports said. In a filing, the United States Department of Justice reportedly asked the court for any injunction to be delayed until all questions are answered about how any shutdown could occur without affecting the government.

“We believe that there are still a number of serious questions to be answered as to how an injunction can be implemented so as to continue BlackBerry service for governmental and other excepted groups,” the Justice Department said, according to reports.

Research in Motion made a filing urging the court to weigh NTP’s claim against “the exceptional public interest in the unfettered availability and use of the BlackBerry system,” reports said.

NTP, for its part, dismissed Research in Motion as a “pirate enterprise” making demands outside of the law, according to reports.

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