Google copied Sonos’ multi-zone speaker technology, US import regulator rules

Photo by Dan Seifert / The Verge

The US International Trade Commission has ruled that Google is in violation of five Sonos patents relating to smart speakers (via The New York Times). The decision affirms a judge’s ruling in August, and could force Google to stop importing products using the infringing technology.

It’s not yet clear whether any specific Google products will necessarily disappear from shelves — in fact, Google spokesperson José Castaneda suggests the company’s customers would not “experience any disruption” as a result of the decision. Bloomberg reported in September that Google may have software workarounds for Sonos’ patents, and Sonos itself admits that Google could possibly “degrade or eliminate product features in a way that circumvents the importation ban that the ITC has imposed.”

Android 12 removed, then mostly brought back the ability to control a Chromecast’s volume

There are signs that this has already started to happen — 9to5Google reported in November that Android 12 removed 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. (One of the five infringed patents is specifically about adjusting volume of devices over a local area network.) According to Mishaal Rahman, the volume control feature has already started to return to some Pixel phones as part of the January 2022 update.

Surprise! Cast volume controls have been re-enabled with the January 2022 update for Pixel. Google either settled its legal matter or this new method enables cast volume controls in a way that doesn’t violate the patent.

Here’s the relevant patch:

— Mishaal Rahman (@MishaalRahman) January 5, 2022

Two of the other patents are about synchronizing multiple devices over a network; one is about setting up a playback device (such as a Wi-Fi speaker) for communication over the network to begin with.

Initially, Sonos had asked the ITC to take action on all sorts of Google devices, including not just the company’s Google Home smart speakers, but also Pixel phones, according to the NYT. We’ve asked both Google and Sonos if any particular devices might actually be blocked from import (and thus sale) 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 bigger and bigger in the smart home space, including smart speakers, cameras, and prominently in Wi-Fi routers, where the company claimed its Google WiFi / Nest WiFi was the best selling router in the entire market in 2019.

You can read the commission’s full decision below:

Here’s the full statement from Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus:

We appreciate that the ITC has definitively validated the five Sonos patents at issue in this case and ruled unequivocally that Google infringes all five. That is an across the board win that is surpassingly rare in patent cases and underscores the strength of Sonos’s extensive patent portfolio and the hollowness of Google’s denials of copying. 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.

It is a possibility that Google will be able to degrade or eliminate product features in a way that circumvents the importation ban that the ITC has imposed. But while Google may sacrifice consumer experience in an attempt to circumvent this importation ban, its products will still infringe many dozens of Sonos patents, its wrongdoing will persist, and the damages owed Sonos will continue to accrue. Alternatively, Google can —as other companies have already done —pay a fair royalty for the technologies it has misappropriated.

Google and Sonos are locked in other legal battles as well — Google filed a countersuit against Sonos in June 2020, and Sonos filed another suit in September 2020 claiming Google infringed on even more of its patents. “We think it’s important to show the depth and breadth of Google’s copying,” Sonos’ Lazarus said at the time.

Sonos has also claimed that Google is preventing it from including multiple voice assistants on its smart speakers, a claim that Google did not deny.

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