Google Redesigns Work Around Sonos Patents, Filing Indicates

(Bloomberg) — Sonos Inc.’s initial victory against Alphabet Inc.’s Google over home audio systems may not be the slam dunk investors initially thought. A filing in the U.S. International Trade Commission case against Google indicates a judge determined that the search giant found a way to work around Sonos patents for how to synchronize audio playback and eliminate minor differences from speakers that the ear can interpret as echoes, among other technologies.

Sonos claims Google copied its technology to undercut Sonos sales and is seeking an order that would ban imports of Google’s Home and Chromecast systems and Pixel phones and laptops, which are made in China. The commission is scheduled to make a final decision in the case by December, and a finding that Google could successfully work around the Sonos patents would blunt the impact of any import ban. ITC Judge Charles Bullock, in a one-paragraph notice issued last month, said he had determined that there had been a violation of all five Sonos patents in the case. At trial, Google had told the judge it had come up with new designs to avoid the Sonos patents, and the judge’s August notice gave no indicated how he had ruled on that issue.

According to a Sept. 7 filing by ITC staff attorneys who act as a third party in the case, the judge had found that certain alternative designs by Google don’t infringe the patents. The filing by the Office of Unfair Import Investigations is a summary of the issues presented by both sides in asking the commission to review Bullock’s findings.

José Castañeda, a Google spokesman, confirmed that “the initial determination did approve redesigns for all of Sonos’ asserted patents.”

“We are disappointed that Sonos has made false claims about our partnership and technology,” he said. “We compete on the merits of our ideas and quality of our products.” 

Santa Barbara, California-based Sonos said that Google’s redesigns would hurt consumers, and claimed the company continues to use Sonos’s other patented technology without permission.

“Google has the option of dropping features and degrading its products at the expense of consumers only to continue to infringe a plethora of Sonos patents,” Sonos said in a statement. “Regardless of whether such a degraded Google product would avoid infringing the particular asserted patents, Sonos owns other patents that cover the features at issue, and Google would have to avoid infringing these additional patents as well.”

In addition to the ITC case, Sonos and Google have lobbed patent-infringement claims against each other in district court.

After the judge’s initial notice, “it looked like they had momentum, but the redesign takes some of that leverage away,” said Tamlin Bason, an analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “There are other cases in district court where Sonos could get that leverage back but it doesn’t look like it’s going to be as easy as Sonos investors had hoped.”

Both companies have asked the commission to review aspects of Bullock’s determination — Google of the main infringement finding and Sonos of the finding regarding the redesigns. Their filings, as well as a redacted version of the judge’s opinion, aren’t yet available. 

The agency routinely allows parties to make confidential filings and then issue redacted versions after proprietary business information is omitted.

The case is In the Matter of Certain Audio Players and Controllers, 337-1191, U.S. International Trade Commission (Washington).  

(Updates with additional Google comment in seventh paragraph.)

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