updated 2/22/2006 3:06:48 PM ET 2006-02-22T20:06:48

The U.S. patent office on Wednesday issued its first of several anticipated final rejections of patents held by NTP Inc. related to Research in Motion’s BlackBerry device, two days before a judge will hear arguments on an injunction on the wireless e-mail service.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is expected to finally reject four other patents at the heart of the court case, but it’s unclear when those actions could come.

Another uncertainty is whether the agency’s act will sway U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer, who has made it clear he is anxious to be rid of the long-running and acrimonious case pitting tiny patent holder NTP Inc. against BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd.

In 2001, NTP sued Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM for patent infringement. The following year, a jury sided with NTP and awarded the small firm 5.7 percent of U.S. BlackBerry sales, a rate that Spencer later increased to 8.55 percent.

Spencer issued an injunction in 2003 but held off on its enforcement during RIM’s appeals, which largely failed.

The uncertainty surrounding the case has unnerved governments, businesses and individual users who rely on their BlackBerry handhelds. But analysts say the odds of an actual shutdown are very low because RIM will either settle the case for as much as $1 billion or introduce new software to work around NTP’s patents.

There are more than 3 million BlackBerry users in the United States. Government and emergency workers would be exempted from any injunction.

The Justice Department, which wants more details about this process, is expected to appear at Friday’s hearing in Richmond. Some analysts have also questioned the viability of RIM’s workaround software, since few details have been released.

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