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BlackBerry sues Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram over copyright infringement in mobile messaging

Sohini Mitter
7th Mar 2018
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The Canadian firm has filed a 117-page lawsuit against “relative latecomers” Facebook and its wholly-owned apps for copying BBM features and functionalities.

This was a long time coming. 

BlackBerry, the erstwhile smartphone giant, has sued Facebook and its subsidiaries, WhatsApp and Instagram, over copyright infringement. BlackBerry claims that it had patented concepts — from design to technology — in mobile messaging which Facebook and Facebook-owned apps have aped in subsequent years.

The Canadian phone-maker’s proprietary and patent-protected instant messaging (IM) service, BlackBerry Messenger or BBM as it was known, debuted in 2006 and literally set the tone for the mobile messaging revolution sweeping the world today.

BlackBerry, in its 117-page lawsuit, termed Facebook and its wholly-owned apps “relative latecomers to the mobile messaging world”. It claims Facebook “created mobile messaging applications that co-opt BlackBerry’s innovations, using a number of the innovative security, user interface, and functionality-enhancing features that made BlackBerry's products such a critical and commercial success in the first place.”

The phone-maker seeks “redress for the harm caused by Defendants’ unlawful use of BlackBerry’s intellectual property”. As per the complaint, it could include injunctive relief and monetary damages. However, no specific figure was stated.

BlackBerry, which owns close to 40,000 software patents, says Facebook has copied BBM features like notification dots which alert users when a new message is received, icons that reflect whether a message has been received and read, timestamps in chat windows, the option to mute message threads, photo-tagging, and so on. It alleges that Facebook was aware of the copyrights all these years.

WhatsApp, when it started out, used an interface quite like BBM’s, but added more functionalities later. Now, WhatsApp has 1.5 billion users, while BBM has all but perished. Facebook Messenger and Instagram Direct too allow instant one-on-one and group messaging.

Paul Grewal, Facebook Deputy General Counsel, reportedly said,

“Blackberry’s suit sadly reflects the current state of its messaging business. Having abandoned its efforts to innovate, Blackberry is now looking to tax the innovation of others. We intend to fight.”

BlackBerry announced in 2016 that it would stop making smartphones, and has sold the design, manufacturing and selling rights to China’s TCL. The Canadian firm is now focused on building software products and applications, and is open to collaboration with Facebook.

In 2017, BlackBerry had filed a patent infringement suit against Nokia. The case is still pending. Of late, courts have been reluctant to grant injunctions in such cases involving large tech companies. There’s a possibility that Facebook could eventually sign a patent licensing agreement with BlackBerry to settle the dispute — as it did with Yahoo in 2012.

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