Tianchu Gao is an IPilogue Writer and a 1L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
If you are a fan of Google products, you will likely find that some of its home appliances are becoming slightly more cumbersome to use. You may need to individually adjust each speaker in a multi-room audio system instead of using the group volume controller. Some users may have to use a specific app to set up their smart devices and update them. These changes are the result of a recent ruling by the U.S. International Trade Commission which held that Google infringed on five of Sonos’ patents relating to smart speakers.
Sonos is a developer and manufacturer of audio products based in the U.S., best known for its multi-room audio products. According to Sonos, the company began sharing its technology with Google in 2013, when the two started working together. Google was not a competitor at the time, but it soon moved into Sonos’ space, launching its first music streaming device, Chromecast, in 2015 and the Google Home speaker in 2016.
The lawsuit began in January 2020, with Sonos alleging that Google violated its patents related to audio technologies and used them in products that undercut Sonos. Since then, the parties have been enmeshed in a global patent war with cases across the U.S., Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The first ruling by the U.S. International Trade Commission came out in August 2021. It determined that Google violated the Tariff Act of 1930, which aims to deter unfair competition through prohibiting actions like importing products that infringe on U.S. patents. As a result, the Commission issued an import ban against Google products that infringed Sonos’ patents, mostly manufactured in China. The decision was upheld in the final ruling in January.
A New York Times report anticipated that the impact of the ruling on Google’s business is likely to be limited. The newer products developed by Google are using different technologies, and Google’s main cash cow, online advertising, remains intact.
Yet the conflict between Google and Sonos is important because it reflects the antitrust problems created by the expanding businesses of today’s tech giants. Starting out as a search engine in 1998, Google is now producing a wide range of hardware products including laptops, smartphones, and home devices. Apple and Facebook (now renamed Meta) are also facing similar issues against smaller companies. According to Sonos, its lawsuit against Google is meant to “ensure all companies, regardless of size, receive fair compensation for investing in the development of industry leading technology.”