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A logo and an AOL-messenger-figure is pictured at the entrance of the AOL office in Hamburg on January 12, 2010.

PHILIPP GUELLAND/AFP/Getty Images

As Research In Motion Ltd. reviews its strategic options, another leader-turned-laggard is showing there's a play on patents. Whether it's a play worth running is an open question.

AOL Inc. is selling and licensing patents to Microsoft Corp. in a transaction worth about $1.1-billion (U.S.), generating a burst of cash. For AOL, the deal that hit the news Monday is a short-term fix. Much of the cash will simply be handed to shareholders, which is likely to boost the company's stock but unlikely to do much for its long-term prospects.

Mobile phone manufacturer RIM looks a bit like AOL, except sped up: RIM's revenue declines have been much sharper. According to Bloomberg, AOL's revenue has fallen 29 per cent since the company was spun off from Time Warner in 2009. Research In Motion RIM-T shareholders have watched revenue fall 25 per cent in the past four quarters.

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So would a patent sale change anything for RIM? A deal for part of RIM's patent portfolio would bring in cash, adding to RIM's current hoard of $2.1-billion, and give investors a view on what the whole portfolio would do by providing a mark to market. That might also provide a boost to RIM's stock.

But the underlying issues, just as at AOL, would remain. The real key would be using the cash to fund something transformative. AOL, by giving the cash to shareholders, is signalling it doesn't have a big transformation in mind. And there's no sign at this point that RIM does either.

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