Earlier this month the home speaker business Sonos sued Google for patent infringement in US district court and at the International Trade Commission. The case, for a journalist, had an immediate appeal to it. The search giant is sued on a regular basis, but mostly by NPEs not operating companies; and while Sonos rarely litigates it has shown a willingness to defend its IP rights in court.
Throw in the high profile of both companies and the confrontation makes for a juicy story and so it has proved. There has been a lot of coverage, including this comprehensive piece in the New York Times.
Sonos is by no means a small player - the company sells around $1 billion-worth of speakers annually - but it pales in comparison with the giants of Silicon Valley. What's more, as its district court complaint outlined, it relies on the likes of Google and Amazon to reach customers and to add functionality to its products.
But after failing to agree to a patent licence with Google - according to the NYT story when Sonos sent its terms for a licensing deal to Google, the tech giant responded with an offer that saw it paying “almost nothing” - the speaker business decided to draw a line in the sand. In the process, the company has effectively cast itself as a leading victim of so-called efficient infringement.
Yesterday, CEO Patrick Spence appeared on a panel before the House of Representatives’ antitrust subcommittee in which he gave further voice to the company’s grievances and urged Congress to take a stand against deep pocket defendants' abuse of the patent system.
The problem of efficient infringement has been around for some time - this op-ed from the NYT’s Joe Nocera did much to shine a light on it back in 2015. There’s also Josh Malone’s passionate telling of how he had to overcome corporate infringers in bruising litigation to eventually see a healthy payout for his invention for filling multiple water balloons at once.
But such stories have never come close to rivalling the airtime that those about “patent trolls” have received.
This is why the Sonos story could become particularly consequential not only for the company’s own future but also in relation to how patent rights are talked about more widely.
What caught my mind as I read the NYT’s piece, in particular, was how this fight was being framed:
The evolving relationship between Sonos and the tech giants reflects an increasingly common complaint in the corporate world: As the big tech companies have become essential to reach customers and build businesses, they have exploited that leverage over smaller companies to steal their ideas and their customers. After mostly keeping those grievances private for years because they feared retaliation, many smaller companies are now speaking out, emboldened in an age of growing scrutiny of American’s largest tech firms.
That puts IP and the ability of patent owners to protect their rights - and to be fairly compensated for them - at the heart of an increasingly anti-big tech narrative that has become more prominent in recent years.
Other outlets and reporters have also turned their attention to the array of challenges faced by IP owners to protect themselves. Rana Foorahar at the Financial Times, for instance, has won a legion of fans for her reporting on what she frames as big tech’s creeping power.
In December last year, The Economist ran a story titled “The trouble with patent-troll-hunting” on how “rules to curb frivolous patent claims may encourage infringement”. If you want a sense of how the climate has changed, in August 2015 it ran a lengthy piece on how it was “time to fix patents”, declaring that “today’s patent systems are a rotten way of rewarding” ideas.
The Economist’s more recent article focused on the plight of NuCurrent, a wireless charging company which, like Sonos, has been struggling to defend its IP against a big-tech rival (in its case Samsung).
And that’s what’s happening here. A growing band of companies - you know the sort that are not of the, gasp, “non-practising” kind - that have found their IP infringed now fit a wider media narrative about the problems that big tech pose for competition and innovation in the global economy.
Now, before some of our readership becomes dizzy by the prospect of an uptick in their fortunes, I should point out that Joe Nocera (this time writing at Bloomberg) has been quick to predict that even if Sonos wins in court the damages will do little to cover its real losses. Which, of course, is what efficient infringement is all about.
All of this tells you a lot about how journalism works. Journalists in the wider news business want stories with real-world case examples - they like narratives about good guys, bad guys. That's because it's what their readers like. And that's also why they’re much less interested in purely theoretical discussions about property rights that can never fit into a 1,000 word brief.
Some in the patent-owning community may bemoan that reality but for wider IP discussions it means that how patents are talked about in the 2020s may be very different to the last decade.
This article first appeared in IAM. For further information please visit https://www.iam-media.com/corporate/subscribe