On January 6, the US International Trade Commission (ITC) ruled that Google infringed Sonos’ Intellectual property in wireless speaker technology. Amongst other things, this decision means that certain Google devices —which include Pixel phones, Pixel computers, Google Home devices, and Chromecast devices— that infringed on the said patents can theoretically be prevented from being imported into the US. This is however unlikely to be the reality, but before we go into why, a bit of background is needed.
While Google certainly needs no introduction, Sonos is considerably less known outside the US. Sonos started as a disruptive startup in 2005 and is a major pioneer in multi-room wireless speaker tech. In 2013, Sonos partnered up with Google to enable support for Google Play Music in Sonos Speakers. This partnership made all the sense at the time, Google was largely a software company and did not sell speakers, and as such, was not a competitor. At least, this was what Sonos thought, Google evidently had other plans. Upon gaining access to Sonos’ patented technology through the partnership, Google wasted no time in using the same technology in its own Smart Speakers, Pixel Phones, and Chromecast Audio Devices.
As you would expect, Sonos was mad. The infringement however was just the beginning, because in addition to blatantly infringing on Sonos’ patents despite multiple warnings, Google adopted a strategy of selling its IP-infringing products at subsidized prices, essentially undercutting Sonos prices. Given its massive scale, Google was in no time selling many more products than Sonos could manage. Sonos attempted to negotiate payment of licensing fees for the patented technology with Google but the latter was not forthcoming. Thus, in January 2020, Sonos was finally fed up and proceeded to file a lawsuit against Google and also initiated the case at the International Trade Commission (ITC).
It is worth noting that this string of events is far from being an isolated case. Big Tech in the US have consistently engaged in the practice of utilizing the IP of smaller companies without adequate compensation. Sadly, for the most part, they get away with it. This practice, now termed “predatory infringement”, often works out for the bigger company as they have enough resources to frustrate their smaller counterparts with dragged-out court cases.
Given the recent ITC final ruling, it would appear that Google did not get away with it this time. However, upon closer inspection, the decision might be less of a win for Sonos than it seems. As mentioned earlier, the decision would, in theory, prevent Google from importing the infringing devices into the US. However, it seems Google already anticipated that the ruling would not go in its favour, as it already developed ‘software workarounds’ in its devices that would circumvent infringement of the 5 patents it was sued for. These workarounds were presented to and approved by the ITC which means that Google would probably be able to continue selling its devices.
Make no mistake though, Google is not completely unaffected. For instance, one of the presented workarounds entails removing a feature that allows users to adjust multiple Google Home Speakers at once. Instead, users would now have to adjust each speaker individually – an experience that is certainly far from how smart speakers are supposed to work. Google however appears to prefer this route to simply paying for the patented technologies it has appropriated.
In many ways, this story has far from reached its end. For one, while the ITC can prohibit the importation of IP-infringing devices into the US, it cannot award damages. This means that Sonos would have to look towards its two pending lawsuits in US federal courts to gain any form of compensation from Google. Unlike the case at the ITC however, these cases are likely to drag on for much longer which is not particularly good news for Sonos. Furthermore, Sonos is still very much dependent on Google for its voice assistant technology which accompanies its speakers. A decision by Google to prevent integration of its voice assistant with Sonos speakers or on stricter terms would, no doubt, result in a nightmare for Sonos.
Finally, while it remains to be seen exactly how this tale would end, one thing is clear; a legal victory for Sonos would set an important precedent for the prevention of predatory infringement by Big Tech. At the same time, it is also very clear that these massive tech companies are still too much for smaller-scale innovators to handle. Undoubtedly, there is an urgent need for regulatory intervention.