OAKLAND, Calif. – Google has infringed five audio technology patents owned by loudspeaker manufacturer Sonos and is not allowed to import products into the US that infringe Sonos’ intellectual property, a commercial court ruled Thursday.
The final verdict of the US International Trade Commission, a quasi-judicial body that decides in trade cases and can block the import of patent-infringing goods, concludes a two-year investigation into the intellectual property dispute.
Sonos had asked the Trade Commission to block the import of Google products that the speaker manufacturer claims infringe its patents. These include smart speakers from Google Home, Pixel smartphones and computers, and the Chromecast video streaming device. These items are made in China and shipped to the United States.
The import ban comes into force in 60 days. During this time the matter will be subject to a presidential review. The final verdict upheld an August commission judge’s preliminary ruling that Google should be subject to the import ban. After this first decision, the whole Commission met to consider whether this decision should be adopted or repealed.
The commission found that Google had violated the Tariff Act of 1930, which aims to prevent unfair competition through measures such as importing products that infringe US patents, trademarks or copyrights. The Commission also issued an injunction against Google.
“We appreciate that the ITC has finally validated the five Sonos patents in question in this case and has clearly ruled that Google is infringing all five,” said Eddie Lazarus, chief legal officer at Sonos, in a statement. “This is a sweeping success that is extremely rare in patent cases.”
José Castañeda, a Google spokesman, said the company disagrees with the ruling but will work to ensure it doesn’t affect the products customers use or their ability to sell or import equipment. Google said the August preliminary ruling approved alternative product designs that circumvent the patents and that the commission did not contest that decision on Thursday.
“We will continue to investigate and defend ourselves against the frivolous claims by Sonos regarding our partnership and intellectual property,” Castañeda said in a statement.
Sonos also has two patent infringement proceedings pending against Google in federal court. The first, filed in the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles in January 2020, has been suspended pending a decision by the International Trade Commission because the cases are overlapping patents. The second, on a different set of patents, is being tried in the US District Court in San Francisco.
In his statement, Lazarus said that Google’s proposed alternative designs “could degrade or eliminate product features in a way that circumvents the ban,” but that Google’s products still infringe dozen of other Sonos patents. He asked Google to pay a “fair license fee” for licensing Sonos technology.
The ruling’s impact on Google’s business appears limited as the import ban is likely to have little impact on newer products that use other technologies. It also has no impact on Google’s main cash cow, online advertising.
Google’s parent company, Alphabet, pools hardware product sales with “other” non-advertising businesses, including apps and digital media sales. That category accounted for 18% of Alphabet’s sales for the third quarter that ended in September.
Sonos has claimed that it shared details of its technology with Google as of 2013, when the two companies started working together. Initially, Google wasn’t a competitor, but it began to invade Sonos’ realm, first with a small device for streaming music in 2015 and then with its Google Home speaker in 2016.
Sonos said Google infringed more than 100 of its patents and proposed a licensing deal to Google. The companies could not agree.
The lawsuits are in part a by-product of the sprawling businesses of today’s tech giants. Google started out as a search engine more than two decades ago. Today it makes a wide range of hardware products, including smartphones, computers, and connected home devices. It sells computing infrastructure to other businesses and high-speed Internet connections to ordinary consumers.
With each expansion of its business, Google is pushing itself onto the lawn of smaller companies that didn’t expect to tangle with a giant with seemingly unlimited resources.
Sonos pioneered home speakers that stream music or podcasts from smartphones and that can be wirelessly networked to play songs in different rooms. However, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook have all entered the market in the past few years and have viewed smart speakers as a way to introduce voice assistants to millions of households around the world.
While technology conglomerates are scrutinized by regulators and politicians, other smaller competitors are bringing the business practices of the largest companies in the industry to justice. Epic Games, creator of the popular Fortnite game, sued Apple and Google over the app store commissions. Facebook, now renamed Meta, was sued in November by a now-defunct photo-sharing app Phhhoto, which alleged Facebook was violating antitrust laws.