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Intellectual Property Insights from Fishman Stewart
Mini Article – Volume 22, Issue 1

Will Google strip functionality from the speakers you purchased?

By Art Hallman

The U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) issued a final decision on a patent dispute between Google and Sonos that could impact products in your home.  The decision reaffirmed the ITC’s August ruling that held that some Google Home products infringed Sonos’ patents.  The final decision included an import ban that prevents Google from importing infringing products into the United States.

Sonos is a developer and manufacturer of audio products and is best known for its smart speakers that are used for streaming music. The infringed Sonos patents cover synchronizing audio across multiple speakers, including technology for controlling the volume of a group of speakers.  Sonos alleged that in 2013, Google received a behind the scenes look at Sonos’ operations when Sonos made a sales pitch to Google and that Google subsequently copied Sonos’ features for use in the Google Home speaker that launched in 2016.

In response to the ITC’s ruling, Google elected to prepare software downgrades that automatically remove the infringing features from consumer-owned products.  The removal of these features changes how users set up devices and how the speaker group functionality works.  For instance, it was previously possible to adjust the volume of a group of speakers with a single control.  Now, a user will have to change the volume of each speaker individually.  Google’s official announcement regarding the speaker changes can be found HERE.

Google decided to remove the infringing features from its speakers instead of paying licensing fees to Sonos, which has made many Google customers angry.  Some of the angry customers have demanded refunds and threatened lawsuits.  

In a previous FishBits® article, attorney Zachary Grant discussed similar issues related to purchasing digital entertainment products. There, licensing disputes between publishers and retailers resulted in the removal of eBooks, movies, and music from customers’ digital libraries. It is increasingly common for consumers to be impacted by disputes that arise between their digital retailer and a third party. Despite lack of consumer involvement, these disputes are allowed to impact consumers because consumers are often purchasing a mere license to digital goods and services. Unlike traditional transactions, where ownership is transferred from seller to buyer, a license allows the buyer’s access to digital goods and services to be revoked by the seller for any number of reasons consented to by the consumer in the purchase agreement.

As we understand and adapt to the new era of digital marketplaces, this dispute between Google and Sonos illuminates that even physical products connected to licensed software are not wholly owned and controlled by consumers. For now, buyer beware that electronics you purchase may not last forever due to disputes outside of the consumer’s control.


Published January 14, 2022