Beats v. Bose: Battle of the Headphone Titans

This past Friday, Bose Corp. filed suit against the popular headphone maker Beats Electronics LLC, who is being acquired by Apple in a $3 billion deal by the end of this year, accusing Beats of ripping off Bose’s sound canceling technology. Now after reading commentary from many “experts”on Facebook and in the blogosphere, I figured I’d check with a real-life intellectual property lawyer (at one of the top IP Law Firms in the world) to see just what this kind of lawsuit means. Is Bose just suing because Apple is too busy with Samsung to care? Not likely. Is this some kind of publicity move to heighten Bose’s market awareness compared to the increasingly popular Beats headphones? Also, not likely.

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Bose has a long history of protecting what the company believes is it’s hallmark, it’s money-maker, the thing that makes their products different from competitors, namely, it’s sound-canceling technology. They filed suit against Monster Inc. for similar patent infringements earlier this year, and have sued Lightspeed Aviation Inc. and Panasonic in the past. Bose doing its best to protect its sound canceling headphones is nothing new.

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Personally, I think sound-canceling in headphones diminishes the audio quality of whatever it is you’re listening to (in addition to usually requiring additional batteries in your headphones, once again increasing the array of shit I have to keep charged on a daily, if not hourly, basis), but Bose claims to have “spent 30 years developing” this technology and isn’t about to let Beats, or Apple (who happens to still have somewhere around $160 billion sitting around in cash, more cash than entire countries in some cases), use their technology without taking a cut of those profits. However, assuming the Beats deal with Apple goes through, there are a couple possible outcomes.

Apple CEO Tim Cook concluding the most gangster of acquisitions with Beats' Dr. Dre.

Apple CEO Tim Cook concluding the most gangster of acquisitions with Beats’ Dr. Dre.

1) Apple/Beats admits to infringing on said technology and licenses the use of the technology so it can continue to make sound-canceling headphones.

This isn’t likely for a couple of reasons. First, Apple hates licensing. Remember back in the day when it was a serious concern whether the format you used on your Microsoft computer would work on your friend’s Mac (or vice versa)? Yeah, that was because Apple hates licensing, even on simple things like word processors. I don’t think this will change.

2) Apple/Beats prove they haven’t infringed and successfully beat this case.

This is a potential, but I don’t have enough information to know for sure. Anyone who owns an iPhone 5s (or feverishly watches Apple media events in some kind of entranced stupor, like me) knows that there is a technology that was touted to reduce ambient noise volume while you’re on a phone call. If I remember properly, the phone emits a sound wave that cancels out the noise around your ears and allows you to hear the caller better. This seems to be technology pretty similar to headphone noise canceling technology, and it doesn’t seem that Apple has incurred the wrath of Bose on this front. So who knows, maybe Apple already has noise-canceling technology that is completely different from Bose’s and this case will be dead in the water once that technology is integrated with Beats post merger.

For a quick patent law lesson, in order for a component to infringe on a patent (in this case, whatever the little part is Bose has developed to cancel sound, or whatever) it has to be known if the component is a significant aspect of the end product you’re making (if the component isn’t even being used in anything else and is simply being used as it was designed by Bose, this is just thievery. Stop it Beats). Then, a case has to be made that the use is so similar to the original intended use under the patent that Beats is actually infringing (you can wake up now, I’ll stop talking about boring shit).

3) Apple bought Beats for the streaming music service and brand awareness and has no desire to focus on making sound-canceling headphones the centerpiece of it’s Beats acquisition.

I think this is the most likely outcome for a couple of obvious reasons. First, Apple, whether you want to admit it or not, revolutionized music delivery with iTunes. However, as time moved on, peoples’tastes shifted to streaming content, like Pandora Radio, Spotify, Soundcloud, etc. Apple didn’t want to spend the time and energy into figuring out how to reorganize it’s content delivery, so it purchased Beats Music in order to have a framework to more easily develop a competing streaming service to bolster shrinking music sales. Apple could just agree not to use this technology in their headphones, if they even plan on continuing to make them, and hopefully alleviate Bose’s patent concerns. Only time will tell.

Regardless of who comes out on top as the king of sound-cancelling headphones, I don’t think much of the EDM world particularly cares. Just going by the recent festival streams, it seems that V-MODA is the way to go in today’s aftermarket headphone market anyway.

Alex Blake

Alex Blake

Passionate audiophile, shameless gourmand, and attorney, Alex is part of the NYC team holding it down for OTB on the East Coast.
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