Planet Money
1:55 pm
Wed May 1, 2013

'The Single Most Valuable Document In The History Of The World Wide Web'

Originally published on Wed May 1, 2013 3:06 pm

Twenty years ago this week, researchers renounced the right to patent the World Wide Web. Officials at CERN, the European research center where the Web was invented, wrote:

CERN relinquishes all intellectual property to this code, both source and binary form and permission is granted for anyone to use, duplicate, modify and redistribute it.

It's a dull sentence from a dull document. But that document marks the moment when the World Wide Web entered the public domain — a moment that was central to creating the Web as we know it today.

I emailed Mark Lemley, an intellectual property expert at Stanford, to ask him about the counterfactual. Could the Web have been patented? And how would the world have been different if it had?

Here's an excerpt from his reply:

It is entirely possible that the Web could have been patented. A strong patent right would have driven innovation along a different path.

Even in 1993, as the Web was being introduced, scholars and the government interested in data communications were talking about the "information superhighway," a proposed centralized, government-sponsored broadband network that would have delivered video from TV stations and other approved content. [It is this, and not the Internet, that Al Gore "invented"].

The Web is what happened from the bottom up while government and the telecommunications companies were still figuring out how to build something from the top down. But a patent right could have changed the course of innovation from the decentralized Internet model to a centralized information superhighway model. And we would all have been the poorer for it.

This week, a CERN spokesman called the document "the single most valuable document in the history of the World Wide Web." There might be a bit of hyperbole in that statement. (It came from a guy sometimes called the half-spin doctor.)

Still, at a moment when the technology world is swamped in patent lawsuits, it does seem worth pausing to appreciate the moment when a group of researchers renounced their intellectual property rights to patent and gave the World Wide Web to the world.

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