Google faces a US import ban on smart speakers and other home technology, after a major legal win by rival speaker maker Sonos.

The US International Trade Commission ruled that Google’s products violate five Sonos patents, upholding an initial decision in August 2021.

Sonos argues Google will have to remove features from its devices unless it pays Sonos a licensing fee.

But Google said it has devised workarounds for the patents and does not expect any disruption to service.

‘Frivolous claims’

The company said it disagrees with the ruling and will “continue to defend ourselves against Sonos’ frivolous claims about our partnership and intellectual property”.

The patents relate to multi-room speakers, and the means by which they synchronise with one another to play music at the same volume in different areas of a home.

Multi-room features were Sonos’ key selling point at the time of its launch in 2002.

Sonos chief legal officer Eddie Lazarus said in a statement that the features encompassed in the ruling include “the set up for controlling home audio systems, the synchronisation of multiple speakers, the independent volume control of different speakers, and the stereo pairing of speakers”.

He said Google could “degrade or eliminate product features” to circumvent the import ban, but that this would “sacrifice consumer experience” while continuing to infringe patents and accruing damages.

Features removed

“Alternatively, Google can – as other companies have already done – pay a fair royalty for the technologies it has misappropriated,” Lazarus said.

Google said its workarounds for the patents have already been approved by the ITC and that expects no disruption to “our ability to import or sell our products”.

But the company’s Google Nest smart home group notified users that they will now need to “adjust each speaker individually” rather than as a group and would “longer be able to change your speaker group volume using your phone’s physical volume button”.

A few users may also need to use a special app to set up their speakers.

Android 12 reportedly removed the ability to control the volume of Chromecast playback, but the feature has returned with a January 2022 update to Pixel devices, according to Android journalist Mishaal Rahman.

Google said it would “seek further review” of the decision.

Rivalry

The trade commission has given it a 60-day grace period before the import ban begins, leaving the company time to implement changes.

Sonos and Google have a number of other outstanding lawsuits.

Sonos has also accused Google of preventing multiple voice assistants from operating simultaneously on its smart speakers, a claim Google has not denied.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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