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

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

However, it is not yet clear if any specific Google products will necessarily disappear from the shelves, and so far it seems unlikely that will happen at all. “We do not expect any impact on our ability to import or sell our products,” said Google spokesman José Castaneda The Verge, and points out how the International Trade Commission already approved Google solutions for each of the five patents, which Bloomberg first reported in September.

We confirmed in ITC̵[ads1]7;s order today that it specifically provides exceptions for five different redesigns of Google’s products – one for each patent – and Castaneda says that Google’s customers will not “experience any disruption” as a result of ITC’s decision, and the company has “60 days to implement changes before a ban takes effect.”

One of Google’s solutions already seems to be live, and more are on the way. 9to5Google reported in November that Android 12 removed the ability to control the volume of Chromecast, with someone believed to be a Google employee citing a “legal issue” as the reason the feature was removed. (One of the five infringing patents is specifically about adjusting the volume of devices over a local network.) But according to Mishaal Rahman, the volume control feature has already started to return to some Pixel phones as part of the January 2022 update, and ITC documents show that the approved “redesigns submitted for review by Google” for the specific patent.

Two of the other patents are about synchronizing multiple devices over a network; one is about setting up a playback device (like a Wi-Fi speaker) for communication over the network to begin with. This evening, Google released a blog post about “Upcoming Speaker Group Changes” explaining that some users now need to download a special app to set up some devices on the network, and that you will no longer be able to adjust the volume of an entire speaker group on a gang.

When we asked Sonos which Google products were affected by the ruling, it sent us a laundry list that included Pixel phones (it used the Pixel 3 and 4 series as examples), home devices like Nest Hub, Nest Mini and Chromecast, and Pixel computers like PixelBook Go with the YouTube Music app installed. The decision is broader, saying that “network-based speaker devices and devices (such as mobile phones and laptops) capable of controlling those devices that contain the infringing technology” are affected – but only if Google has not already implemented them. approved solutions.

It’s quite possible that Google will still be able to import and sell all of these devices without a break, although Sonos suggests that Google’s devices would get worse as a result, writing that Google would have to “degrade or eliminate product features in a way that circumvents the import ban that ITC has introduced. ” The need to adjust the volume of each of your Google speakers individually seems like a downgrade.

In any case, the ruling finds that Google copied the Sonos technology, and it is a blow to the image of Google’s hardware business, which has grown larger and larger in the smart home, including smart speakers, cameras and prominent in Wi-Fi routers, where the company claimed that Google WiFi / Nest WiFi was the best-selling router on the entire market in 2019.

You can read the commission’s full decision below:

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

We appreciate that ITC has definitely validated the five Sonos patents involved in this case, and decided unequivocally that Google infringes all five. It’s an overall victory that is unmatched in patent cases and underscores the strength of Sonos’ extensive patent portfolio and the hollowness of Google’s refusal to copy. These Sonos patents cover Sonos’ groundbreaking invention of extremely popular home audio features, including the setup for controlling home audio systems, multi-speaker synchronization, independent volume control of various speakers, and stereo pairing of speakers.

There is a possibility that Google will be able to degrade or eliminate product features in a way that circumvents the import ban that ITC has introduced. But while Google may sacrifice consumer experience in an attempt to circumvent this import ban, their products will still infringe on dozens of Sonos patents, the wrongdoing will persist, and the damages that Sonos owes will continue to accrue. Alternatively, Google – as other companies have already done – can pay a fair royalty for the technologies they have abused.

Google and Sonos are also locked in other legal battles – Google filed a lawsuit against Sonos in June 2020, and Sonos filed a new lawsuit in September 2020, claiming that Google infringed even more of their patents. “We think it’s important to show the depth and breadth of Google copying,” Sonos’ Lazarus said at the time.

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

Update, 21:04 ET: Updated with information from Sonos about which devices may be affected, with information about Google’s design changes that ITC says do not infringe, and Google’s revelation of several changes in speaker groups to avoid import bans.

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