Guest Opinion: Google loss to Sonos confirms Big Tech’s IP piracy problem

Published 1:43 pm Thursday, February 10, 2022

By Adam Mossoff

In January, the U.S. International Trade Commission ruled that Google infringed Sonos’ patented innovations in wireless speaker technology. This may sound like an obscure legal ruling. But it confirms a problem that threatens America’s innovation economy.

The problem? Intellectual property theft.

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Years ago, it seems as though Big Tech companies decided that they profit more by stealing smaller companies’ intellectual property than to buy or license it. Large tech companies do not sweat legal fees, court costs or even damages they might have to pay for this theft.

Big Tech thus takes what it wants. It uses scorched-earth tactics to beat up on IP owners. It drags out litigation over years and imposes massive costs on IP owners seeking justice. Many IP owners don’t even file a lawsuit. They know it is ruinous and self-defeating to try to protect what is rightfully theirs.

A few companies have fought back. The story of Google’s abuse of Sonos is one of the more telling ones.

Sonos is a classic American success story. Sonos began as a startup in 2005 with its groundbreaking patented innovation in wireless speakers. It secured a licensing deal with Google in 2013, when Google agreed to make its music service work with Sonos speakers.

But Google merely used this deal to gain access to Sonos’ technology. It began making its own devices with Sonos’ technology, including speakers that competed directly with Sonos’ products. Google could subsidize its new products with massive profits from its search engine. Thus, Google undercut Sonos’ prices – a common practice by patent pirates.

Sonos attempted to negotiate a deal, asking Google to simply pay for a license for the technologies it pirated. Google held out, dragging out negotiations while its profits ballooned and Sonos lost more and more money. Seven years later, Sonos was left with no choice but to defend its rights in court, suing Google.

The International Trade Commission ruled that Google had indeed infringed five of Sonos’ patents.

Big Tech’s illicit use of other people’s patented technologies is so common it now has a name: predatory infringement. In plain English, this is piracy.

Unfortunately, Google and other companies have spent millions lobbying Congress and regulators to weaken patents, rigging the system against innovators.

Washington must act to protect the creators who rely on patents as a key driver of the U.S. innovation economy. Congress should reintroduce and enact the bipartisan STRONGER Patents Act. This law would bring balance to the patent system by reforming the legal rules that Big Tech lobbied to create and that are key to its predatory tactics.

Sonos’ victory over Google confirms what lawyers have been talking about for years: Big Tech’s predatory infringement is 21st-century piracy. Sonos is just one of many victims. Washington can help end this piracy and it should do so.

Adam Mossoff is a patent law expert at George Mason University who has testified before Congress on the STRONGER Patent Act. He is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. This piece originally ran in TechCrunch

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