Have you wondered why the option of Google Assistant voice control, used to manage speakers, has disappeared from the Sonos app? The answer is straightforward: the long-standing dispute between the two companies.
Last time, Google and Sonos confronted each other in the hearing on May 8, 2023, before the San Francisco federal judge. The trial was part of a contentious intellectual property dispute, between these two production giants of wireless speaker devices. That dispute includes lawsuits in several countries such as the United States, Canada, France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The two subjects – the tech giant and the smart-speaker manufacturer – have worked together since 2011, eventually leading to the launch of Google Play Music on the Sonos platform in 2014.
In the lawsuit filed in 2020 by Sonos, it was stated that Google’s misappropriation of its patented technology proliferated in 2015, specifically after their collaboration about the addition of Google’s streaming music service into the Sonos system. This alleged misappropriation led Google to use Sonos’ technology for its own products, like Chromecast Audio and Google Home, and, in general, for the expansion of the tech giant in the whole wireless multi-room audio system. The International Trade Commission (ITC) in the US ruled Sonos right regarding the technology for controlling the volume of groups of speakers in a multi-room system. As a result, Google was forced to change the operation of its speakers, removing a feature that led to a deterioration in the overall experience. Furthermore, Sonos won a limited import ban on some Google devices.
In response to the claims, Google sued Sonos filing not one but two lawsuits in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California and in the ITC, claiming they provide Sonos meaningful engineering resources and technical support and that Sonos’s litigation campaign has harmed the reputations of its products and Sonos. The Google spokesman Castañeda did not mince his words against Sonos, allegedly guilty of having “initiated an aggressive and misleading campaign against our products, at the expense of our customers”. But, more than anything, the lawsuits at hand involve a total of seven Google patents.
Again, in August 2022, Sonos sued Google claiming that the voice assistant technologies in Google products would infringe Sonos patents. These patents concern the technique used to determine in a multi-room system which smart speaker should respond to the “hotword” to activate the voice assistant based on the user’s distance (the classic “Hey Google”, for instance) and manage groups of speakers via voice commands.
Google and Sonos have been fighting for some time now. The results so far achieved by Sonos lead one to think that the latter will emerge victorious from the grueling years of legal battles, given Google’s economic power and influence, there is a good chance that the ongoing federal lawsuits in the US will end with some sort of settlement in which a licence agreement will be concluded. However, the legal battle will go on and certainly neither party will back down.
“All tech giants feel that they have become a target, because they expect small companies to initiate lawsuits like this” argues Pamela Samuelson, a technology law researcher and expert in digital copyright and intellectual property at UC Berkeley, “they often decide to reach a settlement, but at the same time they defend themselves vigorously, especially when they feel that the patent is weak or that the patent holder is making unreasonable demands”.
In so doing, we see the same trend based more on practical issues than justice. In the long run, this approach might lead to an abuse of the IP monopolies over competition.
Written by Emanuela Bianco, Partner of Saglietti Bianco, IP Lawyer fully admitted in Italy and the European Union