Sir Tim Berners-Lee: How the WWW Might Never Have Happened

Tuesday, June 15 2004 @ 09:36 PM EDT

Contributed by: PJ

Here's a story for the patent police to ponder. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web -- although not to hear him tell it -- says that if he had charged royalty fees for his invention, the WWW never would have happened. He won an award today, the Millennium Technology Prize, an award partially subsidized by the government of Finland, for his achievement, and made his remarks in connection with accepting the $1.2 million award:

"'If I had tried to demand fees ... there would be no World Wide Web,' Berners-Lee, 49, said at a ceremony for winning the first Millennium Technology Prize. 'There would be lots of small webs.'"
Image a world with no WWW.

He says he took "lots of things that already existed and added a little little bit":

"'Building the Web, I didn't do it all myself,' he said. 'The really exciting thing about it is that it was done by lots and lots of people, connected with this tremendous spirit.'

"Berners-Lee indeed took concepts that were well known to engineers since the 1960s, but it was he who saw the value of marrying them.

"Pekka Tarjanne, chairman of the prize committee, said 'no one doubts who the father of the World Wide Web is, except Berners-Lee himself.'"

In a SCO-controlled world, it would be illegal to invent what he did, because he worked from knowledge that came before him. And in their world, patent fiefdoms would have been established, and royalties would have been demanded, because that is their MO, and they would have cut off their nose to spite their face in the process, because the power that is the WWW depended on not doing what they think must be done. The WWW would never have happened.

I think companies like BayStar need to think deeper thoughts about what they are funding, and companies like Microsoft need to think about what they are building up a patent regime for. They seem to me to be working against the world's best interest when they attack the GPL and Linux.

And for those who think that giving things away results in a tanked economy, just think of all the money companies have made and saved using the WWW. If you saw SCO's new offerings today, you'll see that the company is selling web services products, something they couldn't sell had the WWW never been invented or if it had been hobbled by royalty demands.

The Information Age, we now call it, or the Digital Age. It's worth pondering that this man, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, along with all those who worked with him and whose ideas he benefitted from, changed the world, nothing smaller than that, and it was done not by greedily grasping for every last drop of money from their "intellectual property", but by giving collaborative creativity and innovation room to flourish by taking a broader and less selfish view, giving room for the thought that some things benefit everyone and so are worth doing regardless of the immediate financial possibilities for just oneself. That is what the award was for:

"The prize committee agreed, citing the importance of Berners-Lee's decision never to commercialize or patent his contributions to the Internet technologies he had developed, and recognizing his revolutionary contribution to humanity's ability to communicate."

That is what is so wrong about corporate influence. Can they ever take the long view of what is in the interests of humanity? If not, then it's clear someone else must. Companies like SCO don't think such deep thoughts. But the rest of us should. What's good for Microsoft or SCO isn't necessarily what's good for the world or for its economy.

There is a picture of the award being presented in the press release. More pictures here. The press release provides some more from his speech:

"'We must remember that the web is a long way from revealing its full potential. The extension from human-readable to include also machine-readable information is just one direction of development,' Tim Berners-Lee said in his acceptance speech. Berners-Lee, an Englishman and a graduate of the University of Oxford, is currently working on further development of the web at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He created the WWW, which was first released in 1991, at CERN in Switzerland."

Doctor Jaakko Ihamuotila, Chairman of the Board of the Finnish Technology Award Foundation, brought up technology education in Finland:

'Technology should be a subject in its own right to allow every citizen the opportunity to take a stand on different technologies and to encourage talented young people to enroll in technical education', Ihamuotila suggested.

'A broader understanding of technology is not an unreasonable suggestion considering the opportunities that new technologies hold and the global challenges which are common to all of humankind, challenges that only technology can help to resolve in an economic way.'

Imagine if Microsoft had invented the World Wide Web instead of Berners-Lee, why don't you? What the world would have lost.

Here's something patents in Europe might kill off. A new Knoppix 3/5 LinuxTag 2004 DVD Edition has just been announced. Do we want a world without Knoppix? Here's what the Knoppix home page says:

"'Software-Patents' in Europe: The threat prevails

"Soon the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers will again decide about the legalisation and adoption of so-called 'software patents' in Europe, which are already used by large companies in other countries to put competitors out of business. This can lead to the termination of many software projects such as KNOPPIX, at least within Europe, because the holders of the over 30,000 already granted 'software patents' (currently without a legal foundation) can claim exclusive rights and collect license fees for trivial things like 'progress bars', 'mouseclicks on online order forms', 'scrolling within a window' and similar. That way, software developers will have to pay the 'software-patentholders' for using these features, even in their own, completely self-developed applications, which can completely stall the development of innovative software for small and medium companies. Apart from this, the expense for patent inquiries and legal assistance is high, for even trying to find out if the self-developed software is possibly violating 'software-patents', if you want to continue to market your software. Contrary to real patents, 'software-patents' are, in the draft proposed by the commission, monopolization of business ideas and methods, even without any tangible technical implementation.

"More about the current major problem at"

Here is their Software Patents in Europe: A Short Overview page at FFII.