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 it’s the kind of decision that could theoretically force Google to stop importing products using the infringing technology.
However, it's not yet clear whether any specific Google products will necessarily disappear from shelves, and for now it seems unlikely that will happen at all. “We do not expect any impact to our ability to import or sell our products,” Google spokesperson José Castaneda tells The Verge, pointing to how the International Trade Commission already approved Google workarounds for each of the five patents, as Bloomberg initially reported in September.
We confirmed in the ITC’s order today that it specifically carves out exceptions for five different redesigns to Google’s products — one for each patent — and Castaneda says Google’s customers will not “experience any disruption” as a result of the ITC’s decision, with the company having “60 days to implement changes before a ban goes in place.”
One of Google’s workarounds already appears to be live, and more are on the way. 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.) 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 it approved “redesigns submitted for adjudication by Google” for that specific patent.
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.— Mishaal Rahman (@MishaalRahman) January 5, 2022
Here's the relevant patch: https://t.co/trVx0zqhAm pic.twitter.com/mEZZy4FXn0
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. This evening, Google issued a blog post about “Upcoming Speaker Group changes” which explains that some users will now need to download a special app to set up some devices on their network, and that you’ll no longer be able to adjust the volume of an entire speaker group at once.
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 the Nest Hub, Nest Mini, and Chromecast, and Pixel computers like the PixelBook Go with the YouTube Music app installed. The ruling is more broad, saying that “networked speaker devices and devices (for example, mobile phones and laptops) capable of controlling these devices that incorporate the infringing technology” are affected — but only if Google hasn’t already applied the approved workarounds.
It’s quite possible that Google will still be able to import and sell all of these devices without pause, even though Sonos suggests that Google’s devices would be worse as a result, writing that Google would have to “degrade or eliminate product features in a way that circumvents the importation ban that the ITC has imposed.” The need to adjust the volume of each of your Google speakers individually does seem like a downgrade.
Either way, the ruling finds that Google did copy Sonos technology, and it’s a blow to the image of 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.
Update, 9:04PM ET: Updated with information from Sonos about what devices may be affected, with information about Google’s design changes that the ITC says don’t infringe, and Google’s reveal of several changes to speaker groups to avoid import bans.