What Tim Berners-Lee’s $ 5M NFT sale means to Web History

Sir Tim Berners-Lee gave the source code to the World Wide Web for free. But now it has raised more than $ 5.4 million by selling at auction an autographed copy as well non-fungible token, or NFT, in a sale through Sotheby’s.

He joins Berners-Lee’s NFT eclectic company, including Jack Dorsey’s first tweet, a New York Times column, a Pringles taste called “CryptoCrisp,” a coupon code for life to an online kratom dealer, a lease for a colossal space in San Francisco’s Missionary District, a sexually explicit direct message allegedly from the unfortunate actor Armie Hammer, and a 52-minute fart audio file. But this added more recently to the endless list of NFT collectibles it’s an artifact with an air of gravitas, a souvenir from a boasted internet pioneer. Berners-Lee wrote the code while working at CERN in Switzerland in the early 1990s, creating what he called the “WorldWideWeb” from a NeXT computer. In addition to the copy of the code itself, the auction transportation included a 30-minute animation depicting the code being written, a scalable graphical vector representing the complete code, and a letter Berners-Lee wrote this year. reflecting on what the code was writing. (Berners-Lee will donate the gain, but did not specify where he plans to direct the funds.)

It is a special moment for internet history enthusiasts. The sale offers the opportunity to feel the ownership of a significant bit of history. But it also kills two disparate races of techno-optimism. The code that Berners-Lee wrote is not protected by copyright or otherwise protected by intellectual property law since 1993, only a few years after its creation. “It pushed CERN to release it as a complete public domain,” says Marc Weber, the curatorial director of the Computer History Museum. “Some people thought it was really critical to make the web a success.” It was a pivotal moment for the free software movement, an example of how innovators could push history by choosing collaboration over profit. Now, decades later, this iconically free code is finally monetized.

Or, sort of. Berners-Lee does not sell the code itself, but the equivalent of an autographed copy. The rise of the NFTs has given Berners-Lee the opportunity to raise funds from his legacy without attempting to recover intellectual property rights, which at this point would have been however impossible. Thanks to NFTs, Berners-Lee can keep its code in the public domain and simultaneously attract anyone to purchase a certificate of ownership. Is this commodity directly opposed to the ethos of the open source movement? Well, yes. But also: If the code itself is still in the public domain, does it matter, especially when there is so much money missing?

Berners-Lee doesn’t think so. He he said The Guardian last week that sale didn’t change anything about the opening of the web, or code itself. “I don’t even sell source code.” I sold a picture that I made, with a Python program that I wrote myself, of what the source code would look like if it was attached to the wall and signed by me, ”he said.

But the sale has implications beyond the WWW. As archivist Rick Prelinger wrote in a recent column for WIRED, “Nothing can be a bigger cultural and ethical shock to archives than NFTs.” Prelinger argues that monetizing historically significant holdings could make important documents less accessible to genealogists and other scholars without in-depth studies. Weber shares those concerns, since the Museum of Computer History doesn’t have the deep pockets of independent crypto-millionaire collectors; if printing code as NFT becomes a standard, collecting historically significant copies of code for the museum’s software library could become more difficult. In some NFT sales, the original digital artifact was subsequently removed from the web — for example, when the creators of the popular video meme “Charlie Bit My Finger.” sold the clip such as NFT, they later deleted the original from YouTube.

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