The US International Trade Commission has ruled that Google is in violation of five Sonos patents related to smart speakers (via The New York Times). The decision confirms a judge’s ruling in August and could force Google to stop importing products that use the infringing technology.
It’s not yet clear whether specific Google products will necessarily disappear from the shelves — in fact, Google spokesman José Castaneda suggests the company’s customers won’t be “disturbed” as a result of the decision. Bloomberg reported in September that Google may have software solutions for Sonos patents, and Sonos itself admits that Google may “degrade or eliminate product features in a way that circumvents the import ban imposed by the ITC.”
There are signs that this has already begun – 9to5Google reported in November that Android 12 no longer offered the ability to control Chromecast’s volume, with someone believed to be a Google employee citing a “legal issue” as the reason for the feature’s removal.
Initially, Sonos had asked the ITC to take action on a variety of Google devices, including not only the company’s Google Home smart speakers, but also Pixel phones, the company said. NYT. We’ve asked both Google and Sonos about whether certain devices might be blocked from importing (and thus selling) because of the ruling, and we’ll let you know what we hear.
Either way, it’s a major public blow to Google’s hardware business, which has been growing in the smart home space, including smart speakers, cameras, and very prominently in Wi-Fi routers, where the company’s Google WiFi/ Nest claimed. WiFi was the best-selling router in the entire market in 2019.
You can read the committee’s full decision below; we are now adding additional information.
Here’s the full statement from Sonos’ Chief Legal Officer, Eddie Lazarus:
We appreciate that the ITC has finally validated the five Sonos patents at issue in this case and has unequivocally ruled that Google is infringing on all five. That’s an across-the-board victory that is extremely rare in patent cases, and underscores the strength of Sonos’s vast patent portfolio and the emptiness of Google’s refusal to copy. These Sonos patents cover Sonos’ pioneering invention of extremely popular home audio features, including the setup to control home audio systems, synchronization of multiple speakers, independent volume control of different speakers, and stereo pairing of speakers.
It is possible that Google could downgrade or eliminate product features in a way that circumvents the import ban imposed by the ITC. But while Google may sacrifice the consumer experience in an effort to circumvent this import ban, its products will still infringe many dozen Sonos patents, its misconduct will continue, and the damages owed Sonos will continue to accumulate. Alternatively, as other companies have already done, Google can pay a fair royalty for the technologies it has misused.
Google and Sonos are also engaged in other legal battles – Google filed a counterclaim against Sonos and Sonos filed another lawsuit alleging Google infringed on even more of its patents.
Sonos has also claimed that Google prevents it from including multiple voice assistants on its smart speakers.