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It's time for Google to pay up: Sonos wins patent dispute

The US International Trade Commission rules against Google in a patent dispute, orders a ban on the importation of Google products that violate Sonos patents.
Written by Stephanie Condon, Senior Writer

The US International Trade Commission (ITC) on Thursday ruled against Google in its patent dispute with Sonos, finding that Google infringed upon five valid patents belonging to the smaller audio company. The commission ordered a ban on the importation of Google products that violated the patents and ruled that Google must stop selling patent-infringing products that have already been imported. 

The ruling could impact a wide range of products with certain audio features, like the Nest Hub, Nest Wi-Fi point and Pixel smartphones. Google suggested the ban will not impact the sale or importation of its products. However, Sonos' lawyer called the case an "across the board win" for Sonos and made clear the company expects Google to start paying royalties for the use of its patented technology. 

"There 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," Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus said in a statement. "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 said it does not expect the ruling to impact its ability to import or sell products, given the ITC has approved modified product designs. 

Still, "We will seek further review and continue to defend ourselves against Sonos' frivolous claims about our partnership and intellectual property," Google spokesperson José Castañeda said in a statement. 

While Google intends to appeal the decision, the ban is slated to take effect in 60 days. The Biden administration could also choose to intervene.

Specifically, the ITC ruling says that Google violated the Tariff Act of 1930 when it imported to the US and sold certain audio players and controllers, as well as their respective components.

Sonos first filed suit against Google in the federal court system in January 2020. The patents at issue cover technology for setting up home audio systems, the synchronization of multiple speakers, the independent volume control of different speakers, and the stereo pairing of speakers. 

Sonos was a pioneer in networked audio, but its speakers have been overshadowed by the Google Home and Amazon Echo in recent years. Google and Amazon were able to offer their smart speakers for a fraction of the cost of a Sonos speaker, flooding the market with devices as a means of bringing customers into their respective digital ecosystems. 

In addition to complaining to the ITC, Sonos also filed suit against Google in a federal district court, and its CEO Patrick Spence testified against Google before a US House antitrust subcommittee. 

Google, meanwhile, countersued Sonos.

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