Sonos’ unusual patent plans could be a warning shot to competitors

Sonos, whose cool connected speakers are flying off the shelf, announced a curious new patent policy this week: the company intends to “forward-publish” certain patent applications, giving the whole world an early look at some of its claimed inventions.

If you’re unfamiliar with the patent process, Sonos’s plan is unusual; the way it normally works is that an inventor files an application and then, after 18 months, the Patent Office publishes the application — and related diagrams — for all to see. The inventor usually receives the patent much later.

What Sonos plans to do instead, according to a company blog post, is publish some (but not all) of its applications before the Patent Office does. But why?

Several news reports parrot Sonos’s claim that the company just wants to be transparent and help “improve the overall music experience.” It’s a nice thought — and, if you believe it, come see me in Brooklyn about this bridge I have for sale.

In reality, filing for patents is expensive and patent lawyers are even more expensive, so it’s a safe bet that Sonos has more on its mind that altruism. The more likely explanation is that its “forward-publish” plans are intended as a sharp “stay away” sign to the competitors flooding into its market.

I spoke with the company’s general counsel, Craig Shelburne, and he acknowledged that the tactic was unorthodox but did not provide many more details. He did, however, note that Sonos does not intend to join the ranks of those who “abuse” the patent system — such as the troll that it is currently fighting.

“We’re more anxious to halt abuses than recognize them as a cost of doing business,” said Shelburne, who noted that Sonos now has around 100 patents and pending applications in the US.

Sonos is certainly no patent troll, but its new policy does provide another reason to question whether the current patent system is actually encouraging invention.

Specifically, its early disclosure strategy challenges the popular “bargain theory” of patents — which holds that patents are necessary to get inventors to share their discoveries in the first pace. And as scholars note, scientists and engineers don’t typically read patents to learn about inventions, but instead rely on other means of learning, like conferences or conversations.

In other words, why give out patents in the first place — especially in fast-moving fields like electronics where new technology often become obsolete in a year or two?