Sonos sues Google for patent infringement

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In a move that has become the top talking point of CES and a flash point for an industry’s pent-up frustrations, smart audio company Sonos has sued Google for infringement of five of its patents, The New York Times reports.

The publicly traded, Santa Barbara, California-based audio company sued Google in a federal court and the US International Trade Commission. The goal is to block sales of some of Google’s products (including smart speakers and smartphones, among other things) and to collect financial damages.

According to the article, Sonos “handed over the effective blueprints to its speakers” to Google in 2013 during an effort to make Google’s services work on said speakers. Sonos didn’t anticipate it then, but Google later launched smart speakers that competed directly with Sonos’ offerings. After Google’s speakers hit the market, Sonos employees purchased some and used packet sniffing to analyze how the Google speakers worked with each other. They say they discovered that the speakers used technological solutions that Sonos has previously developed and patented. (They claim to have found the same when testing Amazon’s Echo speakers, too.)

Sonos says it notified Google of the alleged infringement on multiple occasions over the past few years, but Google was unwilling either to recognize it or to adequately compensate the smaller company. On one occasion, it reportedly responded by claiming Sonos was infringing on Google’s intellectual property as well.

Sonos filed a complaint against Google in US District Court for the Central District of California. In the complaint, Sonos says that its “patents cover important aspects of wireless multi-room audio systems, such as setting up a playback device on a wireless local area network, managing and controlling groups of playback devices (e.g., adjusting group volume of playback devices and pairing playback devices together for stereo sound), and synchronizing playback of audio within groups of playback devices.”

The Times says Sonos executives believe it’s not just about patents, though; the execs say that Google and Amazon have both taken advantage of Sonos’ dependence on them to “squeeze the smaller company.” Sonos opted to sue only Google because it could not risk battling both tech giants at once, but Sonos leadership believes Amazon has also infringed on its patents in similar ways with its Echo line of speakers and other devices.

Sonos CEO Patrick Spence said the following in a public statement:

Google has been blatantly and knowingly copying our patented technology… Despite our repeated and extensive efforts over the last few years, Google has not shown any willingness to work with us on a mutually beneficial solution. We’re left with no choice but to litigate.

Spence has also been called on to testify in the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee on alleged abuses and antitrust violations by large tech companies.

The litigation path is not without its risks, as smaller companies like Sonos have reason to be nervous about retaliation. The New York Times report notes that when Sonos “intensified its demands that Google license its technology,” Google applied stricter conditions to Sonos for using Google Assistant in its devices, including a “mandate to turn over the planned name, design, and targeted state date of its future products” months in advance. Google’s own products compete with those for which the Silicon Valley giant sought that information.

Further, like many other tech companies, Sonos is dependent on Google and Amazon in other ways. It relies on Google’s advertising products to reach consumers, it uses Amazon’s servers, and it sells a significant number of its speakers through Amazon’s storefront. There may be nothing stopping Google or Amazon from using those dependencies to retaliate in the United States, though there is no evidence that they have done so against Sonos so far.

Google and Amazon have both released statements denying that they’ve copied Sonos’ technology or infringed on its patents. In a comment to The Verge, Google said the following:

Over the years, we have had numerous ongoing conversations with Sonos about both companies’ IP rights and we are disappointed that Sonos brought these lawsuits instead of continuing negotiations in good faith. Google’s technology was developed independently by Google—it was not copied from Sonos. We dispute these claims and will defend them vigorously.

In the same The Verge article, Amazon’s Dave Limp is quoted saying:

As long as they and others continue to differentiate, customers will find them. It’s not about at any given time, a price point or a set of features. It’s about how do you define your brand and what your brand stands for and how it’s differentiated. And I’m very optimistic that Sonos can navigate that path.

But that can be very difficult, as most smaller companies must support Google or Amazon tech and services, and there may be restrictive rules on how they work on each device. The Times report on Sonos’ lawsuit says that Sonos tried to differentiate itself by making its speakers capable of responding to verbal prompts for either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa at any time, instead of requiring users to work exclusive with one or the other. However, Google and Amazon forced Sonos to abandon the idea because they did not want their assistants operating directly alongside competitors, Sonos executives claim.

It’s too soon to say how viable Sonos’ lawsuit is or where it will lead. But it is currently one of the most concentrated points of an entire industry’s frustration at dependence on (or even bullying by) tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Apple. Another is Spotify’s complaint against Apple with European Union regulators, alleging that Apple has abused its position as App Store gatekeeper to give preferential treatment to the Cupertino company’s own music-streaming app, Apple Music, at Spotify’s expense.

To industry workers at a Consumer Electronics Show largely attended by smaller tech companies that spend much of their time, resources, and effort trying to stay in the good graces of near (or actual, depending on who you ask) monopolies like Google, Amazon, and Apple, Sonos’ efforts to stand up to perceived bullying looks like a heroic act. But it won’t be an easy battle, and victory is not assured. Google is a dangerous dragon to attempt to slay.

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