The legal battle between Sonos and Google has gone up a notch following a new ruling by the US Customs Service.
As reported by Paul Thurott (opens in new tab), Google has been found guilty by the Customs Service of having broken an import ban imposed by the International Trade Commission (ITC) after continuing to infringe on five Sonos patents.
“US Customs Service confirmed that Google was flouting the importation ban and continuing to import infringing products in violation of that ban. This finding marks yet another example of Google continuing to misuse our intellectual property and acting in wholesale disregard of the law. We remain committed to defending our IP [intellectual property] and will continue to do so, on behalf of our own technology, as well as the broader innovation landscape," Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus said.
The legal battle has been running since 2020, when Sonos first sued Google over patent infringements.
Sonos claimed that Google stole key elements of its multi-room technology after a partnership back in 2013, accusing them of using its massive scale to produce competing products that undercut those of Sonos.
The ITC ruling in favor of Sonos back in January this year imposed a crippling import ban on a number of Google's key hardware products including Nest, Pixel, and Chromecast.
In an effort to get around the ban, Google began introducing workarounds via software updates at the start of the year for a wide range of its products. Among the changes was a degrading of its volume adjustment and initial network setup features for their smart home devices and speakers. This meant a less user-friendly experience for owners, with users needing to adjust individual volumes of all units in a Speaker Group separately.
Despite those downgrades, Google has now still been found to infringe on at least two Sonos patents on devices they were still importing following the ban.
Responding to this week’s new ruling, Sonos appeared to throw down the gauntlet to Google with a straight-up order for them to make their products even worse or pay up to use their patents.
Reacting to the result, a Sonos representative told Thurott: “To avoid further importation exclusions, Google must either further degrade its customer experience, or pursue a fair licensing agreement with Sonos.”
When reached for comment, Google spokesperson José Castañeda told TechRadar via email;
"The U.S. Customs Service confirmed that Google audio players are not subject to an importation ban. This decision temporarily impacts a small number of Pixel users who set up a speaker or display for the first time with the Device Utility App. We will work with them to minimize disruption. Our support teams are on hand to fix any issues they have and if needed, we will send replacement devices or offer a Google store credit. Over the years, we have worked hard to make sure that our shared customers would have a positive experience and are disappointed that Sonos continues to use the legal system in a way that deliberately creates issues for these users."
Analysis: A huge win for Sonos… and a potentially big loss for Google smart device users
Sonos will rightfully be celebrating the latest legal salvo in this long-running dispute surrounding its patents, with the result undoubtedly set to be a cause for major headaches among Google’s hardware team.
While the workarounds rolled out to users so far haven’t necessarily been game-changing in terms of the key features of those affected Google devices, existing users have nevertheless been vocal online about the reduced functionality that some of their gadgets now have.
If this latest episode results in further rollbacks of features, Google smart device users will be hoping the companies can gather around a table and strike what’s now likely to be a costly deal for those pesky patents.
This would at least result in the experience for users getting back to what it was before – but people might fairly ask why a company the size of Google/Alphabet didn't just pay its dues to Sonos early on, rather than making the products people paid for worse to use…