Sonos, perhaps one of the best-known premium audio companies, filed a lawsuit against Google at the beginning of 2020. The US International Trade Commission (ITC) then ruled in favor of Sonos in January 2022.
Here's what you need to know, including how it will affect you if you are a Google smart speaker user.
Why did Sonos sue Google?
Sonos claimed that Google copied its patented speaker technology and is using it in Google Home, Google Nest products and Pixel products.
It also claims Google subsidises its devices to sell them at a cheaper price, and it ultimately uses those same devices to collect data from buyers.
What did Sonos claim in its lawsuit?
The New York Times reported that Sonos actually filed two lawsuits. They covered five patents for a wireless speaker design. They also claimed that Google stole Sonos' multiroom speaker technology after accessing it through a partnership in 2013. Google allegedly used patented technology in Chromecast Audio, in order to let Sonos speakers support Google Play Music (now YouTube Music).
Google allegedly continued to use the tech – even including in the Google Home lineup and Pixel products. Despite infringement warnings, Sonos said Google did not shown any willingness to work with it on a mutually beneficial solution. Through a separate case with the International Trade Commission, Sonos seeked a US sales ban on Google's laptops, phones, and speakers.
Google's Pixel devices are listed as "infringing hardware controller devices" because they have infringing Google audio apps pre-installed.
Did Sonos have any proof?
Starting in 2016, shortly after the first Google Home launched, Sonos said it began warning Google about infringement. By February 2019, and after repeated warnings, Sonos said it had accused Google of infringing on a total of 100 patents. The company's lawsuit even referred to several news reports that noted Google's new features are similar to Sonos' existing features, such as:
- Synchronising audio across groups of speakers
- Adjusting the group volume
- Setting up devices on a local wireless network
Sonos also told The New York Times that, when it tried to make a smart speaker that could support multiple voice assistant platforms, both Google and Amazon told Sonos it had to make users choose one when setting up the speaker. Sonos claimed that Google threatened to yank its Google Assistant from Sonos' speakers if it's ever made available alongside a competitor like Alexa.
Which Google devices infringe on Sonos?
The allegedly infringing products include the Chromecast, Chromecast Ultra, the Nest Mini, Nest Hub, Nest Hub Max, and Nest Wifi Point, the Pixel phones, Pixel Slate, and Pixelbook laptop.
Why hasn't Sonos sued Amazon too?
Sonos claimed that Amazon has also infringed its patents with the Echo lineup, but The New York Times reported that Sonos executives didn't want to fight both Google and Amazon – two tech giants – in court at once.
Have Google and Amazon responded?
Google and Amazon both denied Sonos' claims to The New York Times.
How does this all affect you?
It doesn't affect you at the moment, though it could now that Sonos has won the lawsuit.
The import ban is for Google devices being imported into the US, but the ITC has given Google 60 days to comply before the ban would come into place. It's likely Google will roll out software updates to its products that will offer different solutions that don't infringe on the five Sonos patents and therefore stop the ban happening.
The Verge reported that a Google spokesperson has said the ITC has already approved some of the measures and some workarounds have already appeared, such as volume adjustment. Rather than the volume of all speakers and devices in a speaker group being adjusted simultaneously, users have to adjust each device's volume separately. Sonos enables both in its system, you can adjust as a group or individually.
It's also said that "a small set of users may need to use the 'Device Utility app' (DUA) to complete product installation and updates", though it's possible this will affect new customers rather than existing.
At the moment, the impact is likely to be minimal on Google device users, though it's still a huge win for Sonos and it could impact devices from Google going forward.