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Friday, June 21, 2024

Sonos’ Patent Win Will Change Google’s Smart Speakers—for Now

On Thursday, the US International Trade Commission, which rules on import laws, determined that Alphabet-owned Google infringed on audio technology patents held by smart speaker company Sonos, a significant win for Sonos in a two-year-long David v. Goliath lawsuit. The commission said that Google has infringed on five Sonos patents, and issued a “limited exclusion order” prohibiting the import of certain audio technologies, controllers, and components made by Google.

Google, unsurprisingly, says it’s not backing down: It plans to appeal, and has 60 days to do so before the ITC’s ruling goes into effect. Sonos, meanwhile, has two patent infringement cases against Google still pending in federal court. “Those two pending lawsuits are important, because the ITC doesn’t have the authority to award damages,” says Peter Toren, a Washington, DC–based intellectual property lawyer.

But Google clearly anticipated that this might be the outcome of the ITC’s review, because back in August 2021 the company presented a series of product redesigns to ITC judge Charles Bullock, who determined the proposed workarounds would not infringe on Sonos’ patents. On the heels of the ITC ruling yesterday, Google shared some of the changes it’s making to its smart speakers.

So how does the ITC’s ruling, which has the potential to block all imports of certain products unless Google complies, affect the product experience? For one, the changes Google will roll out apply to Google smart speakers and Nest Hub displays. Google hasn’t provided a full list of affected devices, so it’s unclear how or whether this affects other Google products, such as Pixel phones or Chromebooks. The updates will roll out “in the coming days,” according to spokesperson Nicol Addison. And for now, the updates are all software-based.

Google says the ability to adjust speaker volume by group will go away; customers will now need to adjust each speaker's volume individually. And, “you’ll also no longer be able to change your Speaker Group volume using your phone’s physical volume button,” the company says. Casting functions will also be affected on non-Google smart devices with Chromecast built in, such as those made by Lenovo or JBL, unless the speakers are updated to the latest firmware. And some users will no longer experience automatic software updates on their smart speakers; instead, they’ll have to download and install a Device Utility app. This will “ensure your device is connected to Wi-Fi and receives the most updated software version,” Google says.

These may seem like relatively small changes, but a large part of the appeal of multiroom wireless smart speakers—a market Sonos helped pioneer back when it first launched 20 years ago—is the ability to sync up multiple speakers and control them simultaneously. Some of that ease of use will be eliminated with these changes.

The ITC’s ruling could also affect future Google designs. And more changes could come down the line, depending on the outcomes of the federal lawsuits. (One of those, which was filed in US District Court in Los Angeles, is on pause until the ITC decision is finalized, according to The New York Times. The other case, which was filed in US District Court in San Francisco, is proceeding.)

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Sonos first sued Google in January 2020, alleging that a technology partnership first forged with Google back in 2013 eventually culminated in Google stealing Sonos’ intellectual property. (Sonos has claimed that Amazon also stole Sonos’ IP and undercut the company with cheap smart speakers, but decided to focus its legal efforts on Google, as Sonos could not afford the risk of dual lawsuits against two giant tech companies.) “Google has been blatantly and knowingly copying our patented technology,” Sonos chief executive Patrick Spence said in 2020.

The lawsuit is especially fraught considering that Sonos and Google are still partners in technology: Sonos’ newer smart speakers can be controlled by Google’s voice assistant, something Sonos was compelled to integrate after it found itself years behind in developing its own AI-powered voice assistant. And in the suit, Sonos claims that Google put stricter rules in place for using its voice assistant after Sonos demanded Google start licensing its proprietary tech.

Google has vigorously disputed these allegations. In response to the ITC ruling this week, the company says that it “disagrees” with the decision. “We appreciate that the International Trade Commission has approved our modified designs and we do not expect any impact to our ability to import or sell our products. We will seek further review and continue to defend ourselves against Sonos’ frivolous claims about our partnership and intellectual property,” Google spokesperson José Castañeda says.

Sonos, in a statement from chief legal officer Eddie Lazarus, says that it is glad the ITC “has definitely validated the five Sonos patents at issue in this case and ruled unequivocally that Google infringes all five … These Sonos patents cover Sonos’ groundbreaking invention of extremely popular home audio features, including the set up for controlling home audio systems, the synchronization of multiple speakers, the independent volume control of different speakers, and the stereo pairing of speakers.”

Lazarus went on to say that Sonos believes Google will “degrade or eliminate product features” in order to circumvent the ITC’s importation ban; but that even if Google does this, its products will “still infringe on many dozens of Sonos patents, its wrongdoing will persist, and the damages owed Sonos will continue to accrue.”

Toren, the IP expert, believes that, given Google’s cash pile and influence, there is a good chance the federal court cases will end up in some sort of settlement, in which a global licensing agreement is established. But that doesn’t mean either company will go down without an (ongoing) fight. Pamela Samuelson, a technology law researcher and an expert in digital copyright law and intellectual property at UC Berkeley says in an email that “all of the big tech companies perceive themselves as if they have big targets on their backs because they expect little guys to bring cases like this.”

“Often they settle, but they also fight back, especially when they think the patent is weak or the patentee is being unreasonable in their demands.”

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