Sonos wins court battle against Google as judge rules the tech giant infringed on FIVE patents

Speaker maker Sonos has won the first round of its battle with Google, with a trade judge finding that the tech giant violated five patents.

U.S. International Trade Commission Judge Charles Bullock on Friday announced his preliminary findings, ruling that Google should not be allowed to import products that violate Sonos’s intellectual property.

Sonos’s share price jumped seven percent on the news. 

He did not detail the reasoning for his decision, but ruled that Google had violated a statute of the Tariff Act of 1930. The law aims to prevent unfair competition through actions such as the import of products that infringe on U.S. patents, trademarks or copyrights.

Google Home devices are made in China. 

A Google Home device is seen. Google has filed counterclaims and accuses Sonos of infringing on its intellectual property

Speaker maker Sonos on Friday won the first round of its legal battle with Google, seeking to ban imports of some Google devices to the U.S. over patent infringement claims. Pictured: A Sonos home speaker device (left) and a Google Home device (right)

Sonos's share price rose seven percent on Friday after the judge's ruling

Sonos’s share price rose seven percent on Friday after the judge’s ruling 

Two of the five patents involve techniques to synchronize audio playback, to eliminate minor differences that the ear can interpret as echoes, according to Bloomberg

The others involve ways to pair up speakers to create stereo sounds, adjusting volumes of either single or groups of speakers with a single controller and a way to easily connect the system to a home’s Wi-Fi. 

‘We are pleased the ITC has confirmed Google’s blatant infringement of Sonos’ patented inventions,’ Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus said in a statement. 

‘This decision re-affirms the strength and breadth of our portfolio, marking a promising milestone in our long-term pursuit to defend our innovation against misappropriation by Big Tech monopolies.’ 

The full commission has to consider his decision before making a final ruling, which is scheduled to take place on December 13. 

If an import ban is then imposed, it would not take effect for 60 days. 

‘We do not use Sonos’ technology, and we compete on the quality of our products and the merits of our ideas,’ Google spokesman José Castañeda said. 

‘We disagree with this preliminary ruling and will continue to make our case in the upcoming review process.’ 

Sonos, founded in 2002 in Santa Barbara, California, filed a complaint against Google in January 2020. 

They accuse Google and its parent company Alphabet of importing ‘audio players and controllers, components thereof, and products’ that ripped off its patented technology without permission.

The company has also filed a lawsuit, and Google filed a countersuit accusing Sonos of infringing on Google’s patents for several products, including controller apps and its Sonos Radio service.

‘Sonos has misrepresented our partnership and mischaracterized our technology,’ a Google spokesperson told Bloomberg. 

‘We designed our products and services independently, and we have strong IP rights that we believe they have infringed.’ 

U.S. International Trade Commission Judge Charles Bullock (pictured) announced his findings on Friday

U.S. International Trade Commission Judge Charles Bullock (pictured) announced his findings on Friday 

Suits and countersuits in the legal war have been filed in California, Texas, Canada, France, Germany and the Netherlands. 

‘Google has thrown everything at us in this case, but we believe that the evidence before the ITC demonstrates Google to be a serial infringer of Sonos’ valid patents and that the ITC case represents just the tip of the iceberg,’ Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus said in an earnings call Wednesday.

Sonos claims that Google has been ripping off its designs since 2015, when the two companies were working together to integrate Google Play Music in Sonos devices.

Among the proprietary technology that Sonos accuses Google of stealing are systems to synchronize audio playback between multiple speakers, to eliminate lags that can sound like echoes.

The ITC, a quasi-judicial body, has the power to ban imports of goods that are found to violate U.S. patents. 

The ITC first opened its investigation into Sonos’ claims in February 2020, the month after it was filed.

The case has drawn scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers, as Congress probes antitrust concerns about Google and other tech giants.

Sonos CEO Patrick Spence accused Google and Amazon of using their dominance of search and online retail, respectively, to subsidize their push into the smart speaker market

Sonos CEO Patrick Spence accused Google and Amazon of using their dominance of search and online retail, respectively, to subsidize their push into the smart speaker market

Last year, Sonos CEO Patrick Spence in Congressional testimony accused Google and Amazon of using their dominance of search and online retail, respectively, to subsidize the smart speaker market and, potentially, dominate the market for other smart home devices. 

Amazon makes Echo smart speakers and the virtual assistant Alexa while Google makes the Nest series of smart speakers. 

In a June hearing, lawmakers from both parties pressed Google and Amazon about their smart speakers. 

Senator Amy Klobuchar, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, noted that Amazon had more than 50 per cent of the smart speaker market while Google had 30 per cent, and stressed the importance of interoperability.

‘In a few years, people might easily have 20 or more connected devices in their homes – from a vacuum and a fridge to speakers and lights. We want those devices to work with each other seamlessly,’ she said. 

‘You shouldn’t have to choose the right devices for your home based on whether they play nicely with Google or Amazon’s digital assistants.’

Google Senior Public Policy Director Wilson White said interoperability was a goal and there were ‘robust conversations’ underway on how to achieve it.

Ryan McCrate, Amazon’s associate general counsel, said Amazon wanted users to have access to multiple assistants from a single device if that was what the user wanted.

But Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus argued that neither Google nor Amazon appeared to be trying for true interoperability.

Google contractually prohibits Sonos from using technology that allows users to switch between Amazon’s Alexa and the Google voice assistant, Lazarus said. 

He said Amazon’s effort to work with smaller companies was ‘just an on-ramp into the Amazon ecosystem because you can’t mix and match between the big companies.’

It comes at a time of extraordinary interest in tougher antitrust enforcement, much of it focused on the biggest U.S. technology companies. 

One result has been a series of investigations and several federal and state lawsuits filed against Google and Facebook as well as a long list of antitrust bills. 

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