Google exec: Supreme Court should rule on a risk to innovation

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to weigh in on a defining battle of the digital era. 

The court is about to decide what happens next in Oracle v. Google — a case that will affect not just the apps on your smartphone, but the future of American software innovation.

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The case hinges on whether developers should be able to create new applications using standard ways of accessing common functions. Those functions are the building blocks of computer programming, letting developers easily assemble the range of applications and tools we all use every day. Making it harder to connect with those functions would lock developers into existing platforms, thus reducing competition and, ultimately, hurting consumers.   

Access to software interfaces like these is the key to interoperability, the foundation of great software development. It lets millions of developers write millions of applications that work on billions of devices. It means that you can take a picture on an iPhone, store it with Google Photos, and edit it on a Microsoft Surface tablet. It helps applications to work, developers to thrive, and competition to flourish. 

But unless the Supreme Court decides to review this case, Oracle and companies like it would become gatekeepers to interoperability. Imagine a company claiming that you could use keyboard shortcuts with only its brand of computer. That’s a dangerous precedent which would lock in entrenched platforms and make it harder to develop new devices, platforms and applications. Popular software platforms and apps could be deemed off limits — even as many people are calling for more, not less, interoperability.  

If you’re thinking, “Well, of course, Google would say that,” then the wide range of voices supporting interoperability should give you pause: 175 startups, developers, academics and other tech companies are asking the Supreme Court to hear this case, arguing that Oracle’s interpretation of copyright law is wrong on the law, is contrary to how software has long been created, and ultimately would be bad for innovation. 

Microsoft says that the current rulings would have “disastrous consequences for innovation.” Engine Advocacy, representing start-ups and new businesses, says that “the costs of compliance could be staggering.” And leading computer scientists caution that the rulings "threaten to upend decades of settled expectations across the computer industry and chill continued innovation in the field.”

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Google has twice won lower court decisions, including a unanimous jury verdict, upholding open and interoperable software interfaces. But reversals by an appellate court have brought this issue to a head. The Supreme Court has the power to resolve this nearly decade-long dispute, restoring the ability of developers to create software that will improve health care, transportation, education and much more. 

The Constitution says that copyright law should “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” American law has long lived up to that promise, contributing to our preeminent position in technological innovation. That’s why so many people are asking the Supreme Court to uphold the ability under copyright for software to work together, building tools that work better for everyone.

Kent Walker is senior vice president for global affairs for Google, overseeing Google's legal, policy, and compliance affairs, product policies, philanthropic efforts, and work with governments around the world. Before joining Google, he worked for numerous technology companies, including AOL, eBay and Netscape. He formerly was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Department of Justice and advised the attorney general on technology policy. Follow him on Twitter @Kent_Walker.