Does the Sonos Patent Decision Ignore the Original Idea?

Yesterday, the US International Trade Commission made the decision that Google infringed (I’m sure some would say “blantantly stole”) some of Sonos’ patents and applied them to their Google Home speakers, notably when they were used in groups. Google, as a result, has opted to not pay the royalties that Sonos demanded and is instead removing the features from their Home speakers through a software update.

Oy. The things we have to unpack with this whole scenario.

Google is screwing their customers

This is where I see the single biggest issue. By deciding to not pay royalties (which I’m sure is being seen internally as a matter of principle, which I’ll get to in a moment), Google is taking away functionality that was a selling point for a not-insignificant number of customers. This would be akin to car manufacturers turning all car stereo systems into mono sound because someone held the patent for stereo sound.

Were I one of those customers (I own Google products, but I don’t use them for audio), I would be seriously pissed, especially if this is something I’ve come to use regularly. This would effectively become a broken promise between Google and myself, as I bought the Home speakers with the understanding and expectation that I could use them as advertised. As Ars’ article already notes, there are people who would lodge a lawsuit against Google for breaking that promise.

But why would google take the stance of principle, anyway? Wasn’t this the company that was once famous for “Do No Evil”? Not that this is evil per se, but it certainly smells of flipping the bird at Sonos and indirectly at their own customers. Was the royalty so burdeonsome for a company that made $40 billion in profit in 2020? This is nothing more than spite for having lost a case.

My question, of course, is whether this should have been a case in the first place…

Google is the first, is Apple next?

Apple’s HomePods are probably another target. And with the Google decision, there’s now precedent, which means Apple would be defenseless if Sonos turned their guns towards Cupertino. Given, Apple also has a ridiculous war chest they could easily leverage, and they are far more experienced-focused than any other hardware company, so it’s highly likely that (assuming they already don’t) they would pay the royalty and continue on in life.

But would Apple decide instead to fight the decision? It’s not out of the realm of possibility, though they’d certainly need to do a lot more to convince the ITC (and presumably other courts) that Sonos’ patent isn’t valid. Because that’s what it would take for this to be undone, and that’s no small feat. It’s not easy to undo software patents because they’re so notoriously vague and misunderstood.

Sonos doesn’t even have an original idea

Oh, how I hate patents, especially software patents. They’ve gone from being the tool that defends creators’ ideas, allowing them to profit from their hard work, into weapons that are leveraged for making a buck. Am I painting a poor, highly generalized picture? Absolutely, because that’s what most of the high-profile cases have been over the last 20 years.

This is because software is (highly IMO, of course) the single worst place to have patents.

One of the infringing patents is group volume control: the ability to use a single device to control the volume of a group of speakers. Please re-read that sentence, carefully – there’s no mention of software, smartphones, wireless, or whatever. It’s just the concept of a singular unit’s control over a group of things. This is not a new idea at all, it’s been used many times over many industries. This screams “prior art”.

Okay, so this is applies specifically to speakers. I saw “smart houses” in the 1980s that had central speaker control next to the stereo system, applicable to speakers all over a (wired) house. One panel, controlling everything. Sonos’ idea is not new. That they’ve taken the idea and applied to their product set is nothing more than an evolution, and not even a particularly clever one.

Did Google “steal” the idea and apply it to their products? Maybe? But does that really matter? We’ve seen this kind of theft before: several iOS apps over the years expanded iPhone functionality to move the camera shutter to the volume button when the Camera app was running, or turned on the flash LED and made it a flashlight. Apple incorporated those ideas directly into iOS without any compensation to the companies (or individuals) that came up with the idea in the first place – it was an evolution of iOS (we’ll defer the ethics of said practices for this particular discussion, as…) and no-one faulted Apple for it, took them to court, or at this point, likely even remember a time when iOS didn’t have these features.

Software patents bely a fundamental point of software development: the creative process to solve a problem. And I can’t stress this enough: there is no one unique way to solve a problem in software. All you need to do is look at the number of languages, open source frameworks, and various software packages to know that the same problems have been solved repeatedly in different ways. If we applied the expectations of software patents to the whole of software development, we’d only have one or two languages, only one content management platform, one image format, one way to encode videos.

It’s because of the varied needs that arise daily and the sheer creativity of software engineers that we find the plethora of options. That doesn’t mean they’re all good options, but even a not-so-great idea can inspire someone else to create something even more amazing, or even evolve our society (witness what crypto currency has done).

Personally, I think the Sonos patents are worthless, not offering any real competitive advantage over something that’s already been done before. But then, I may be opinionated.

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