Google Infringed on Sonos Speaker Technology, Trade Court Rules

Auckland, Calif. – Google has violated five audio technology patents held by speaker manufacturer Sonos and is not allowed to import products that infringe on Sonos’ intellectual property in the United States, a trade court ruled Thursday.

A final ruling by the United States International Trade Commission, a quasi-judicial body that decides trade cases and can block imports of goods infringing patents, closes a two-year investigation into an intellectual property dispute.

Sonos asked the trade commission to block the import of Google products that the speaker company infringes on its patents. These include Google Home smart speakers, Pixel phones and computers, and Chromecast streaming video devices. Those items are made in China and shipped to the United States.

The import ban will take effect in 60 days. During that time, the matter will be subject to review by the President. The final ruling in August upheld a preliminary ruling by a commission judge that Google should be subject to an import ban. Following that initial judgment, a full commission meeting was held to consider whether to accept or overturn the decision.

The commission found that Google had violated the Tariff Act of 1930, which aims to prevent unfair competition through actions such as importing products that infringe US patents, trademarks or copyrights. The commission also issued a seizure and disaster order against Google.

“We appreciate that the ITC has firmly recognized the five Sonos patents on the issue in this case and has clearly ruled that Google infringes the five,” Eddie Lazarus, Sonos’ chief legal officer, said in a statement. “It’s an entire board win that is very rare in patent cases.”

Jose Castaneda, a Google spokesman, said the company disagreed with the ruling, but would work to ensure that its ability to sell or import products or devices used by consumers was not compromised. Google said a preliminary ruling in August allowed alternative product designs that work around patents, and the commission did not challenge that decision Thursday.

Mr. Castaneda said in a statement.

Sonos also has two patent infringement lawsuits against Google in federal court. The first, filed in a U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in January 2020, stayed the decision of the International Trade Commission because the cases involved patent overlapping. Second, a separate set of patents involving a lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

In his statement, Shri. Lazarus said the alternative design proposed by Google could “degrade or eliminate manufacturing features in a way that prevents import bans” but that Google’s products still infringe on dozens of other Sonos patents. He called on Google to pay a “reasonable royalty” for licensing Sonos’ technology.

The impact of Google’s ruling on business appears to be limited, as new products using a variety of import ban techniques are less likely to be affected. It doesn’t even affect Google’s main cash guy, online advertising.

Google’s parent company is reducing sales of hardware products with “other” non-advertising businesses, including sales of Alphabet, apps and digital media. Alphabet accounted for 18 percent of Alphabet’s revenue in the third quarter, ending in September.

Sonos claims that it shared details of its technology with Google when it began working with the two companies in 2013. Initially, Google was not a competitor, but it began to move into the Sonos space, first with a small device to stream music in 2015 and then in 2016 with its Google Home speaker.

Sonos said Google was infringing on more than 100 of its patents and had offered Google a licensing deal. The two companies could not reach an agreement.

These lawsuits are a byproduct of today’s tech giants’ scattered businesses. Google started as a search engine more than two decades ago. Today, it makes a wide range of hardware products, including smartphones, computers and connected home devices. It sells computing infrastructure to other businesses, as well as high-speed Internet connectivity to general customers.

With each expansion of its business, Google builds muscle on the turf of small companies that did not expect to be confused with Behemoth with unlimited resources.

Sonos was a pioneer in home speakers that stream music or podcasts from smartphones and can be networked wirelessly to play songs in different rooms. However, Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook have all entered the market in the last few years, with smart speakers seen as a tube to introduce voice-based assistants to millions of homes around the world.

With the technology group under scrutiny by regulators and politicians, other smaller rivals are challenging the business practices of the industry’s largest companies in court. Epic Games, creator of the popular Fortnight game, sued Apple and Google for app store commissioning. Facebook, now renamed Meta, was sued in November by the now defunct photo-sharing application, Phhhoto, which insisted that Facebook violated the law of no-confidence.

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