We live in strange times. People post selfies getting an injection. A football tournament is being played with half-empty stadiums. Sotheby’s is selling digital assets and sneakers, and it will be selling an NFT of some code by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web.

The auction is for a non-fungible token of the “Source Code for the WWW, 1990-1991”. In other words, it is a metadata file written into the Ethereum blockchain (can be found here) that has been encoded using source code written by Sir Tim Berners-Lee between 1990 and 1991. The auction ends on June 30, and it currently has a highest bid of $2.2 million USD. That’s a lot of money for a metadata file, but don’t worry, Sotheby’s has you covered with a lot of additional goodies. The auction includes, besides the NFT itself:

  1. “Original archive of dated and time-stamped files containing the source code, written between 3 October 1990 and 24 August 1991. These files contain code with approximately 9,555 lines, the contents of which include implementations of the three languages and protocols invented by Sir Tim; HTML (Hypertext Markup Language); HTTP (Hyper Transfer Protocol); and URIs (Uniform Resource Identifiers), as well as the original HTML documents that instructed early web users on how to use the application
  2. Animated visualization of the code being written (Video, black & white, silent), lasting 30 minutes 25 seconds
  3. A Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) representation of the full code (A0 841mm wide by 1189 mm high), created by Sir Tim from the original files using Python, with a graphic representation of his physical signature at lower right
  4. A letter written in the README.md file (in “markdown” format) by Sir Tim in June of 2021, reflecting upon the code and his process of creating it.”

Hey, 2 million dollars for an avi, a graphic, a read.me file, and some historic code is not too bad, right?

Those of you who know a bit about the history of the web will be wondering the same thing that many of us thought when we heard the news. Wait a second, Sir Tim did not invent the World Wide Web all on his own, he was working in CERN at the time, and it was them who released the first implementation of the software. Moreover, CERN released the code into the public domain in 1993, so what gives? How can TBL now sell an NFT and a copy of code that he doesn’t own?

Hang on, things are about to get a bit bumpy.

The first thing to note is that the code is not actually for sale, there will be no rights changing hands, whatever is sold is a copy of some files, and also the token itself which has been made with the original files. The second thing of note is that the code for sale is not the same as the first WWW implementation, according to a Sotheby’s spokesperson: “The NFT is a unique package put together by Sir Tim.” While there appears to be some similarity in the code that was first released by CERN, it’s not the same, and there’s no mention anywhere in the NFT release about CERN, or its role in the sale.

Moreover, the code that was placed in the public domain in 1993 is not the same that was released in 1991, while the release acknowledges the early efforts, it was subject to modifications and additions, and what is now known as the WWW Library of Common Code contains “code for accessing HTTP, FTP, Gopher, News, WAIS, Telnet servers, and the local file system”.

As far as I can tell, the code that is being used as the basis of the NFT is code that was written specifically by Sir Tim between 1990 and 1991 using a NeXT computer, and was part of the first release, but as I mentioned, is not the same code. Most importantly, the code was changed by CERN as not many people were using NeXT computers, so it was amended to make it compatible with unix systems.

My guess? Without comparing both code sets, I would say that what TBL used to create the NFT is the original NeXT computer code, but we’ll have to see. The auction text is sort of vague on that respect.

The next question of course is whether TBL can do this, and whether CERN will try to sue him for copyright infringement.

I don’t think that there will be any legal action for various reasons. Firstly, there’s a moral element to the question that cannot be eluded. For many years Sir Tim Berners-Lee has been seen as a selfless individual, a person who changed the world and did not profit from his invention, while at the same time advocating for a free and open Internet. While I tend to agree with those sentiments and ideals, it’s possible that over the years he saw the vast amount of money people are making, and decided that it was time to profit from his work. Nothing wrong with that in my opinion, and what better way of doing that than to benefit from the NFT hype. Someone will be buying a glorified metadata file and a fancy animation, good for him.

Secondly, the legal case for a lawsuit would be murky to say the least. While I do not know TBL’s employment situation at CERN when he wrote the code, one could assume that CERN own the code if it was work-for-hire. However, CERN very famously released all the WWW code into the public domain in 1993. This would mean that anyone can create an NFT of the code.

Thirdly, and I’ve been banging this drum for months, we have to remember that an NFT is not the work itself, it is code that has been made with a work. There’s no exclusive right of the author with regards to generating a metadata file linking to the work. Even if CERN still had copyright over the code, TBL making an NFT out of it would not be infringing copyright because it is just a unique ID number and a smart contract address that have been written on the blockchain, and not the work itself. It’s possible, but not necessary, that the work will have a link to where the original work is stored, but again, this is not necessary, and the link could even be broken.

So whichever way you look at it, this appears to be perfectly legal, I’m sure that Sotheby’s has extremely expensive lawyers who have been looking at this in detail.

Contrast this situation with the recent fiasco involving Jay-Z’s first album, an NFT of which was gong to be sold this week by Damon Dash, one of his early collaborators. Dash was going to sell an NFT of the album with added copyright transfer in a platform called SuperFarm, but then Jay-Z sued him as he did not have the right to do so. A judge has issued an injunction to stop the sale. More on this later as it’s a moving situation, but to me the case looks extremely straightforward.

Concluding, I think that Sir Tim Berners-Lee has all the right to sell an NFT of his work, and for once profit from his historic achievement. While I dislike the idea of NFTs in principle, more power to him if someone will pay millions for an READ.ME file and some bells and whistles. As long as the buyer knows that they’re not actually buying the code to the WWW, we’re all fine.

However, the NFT craze seems to be the opposite of what the Web was built for, but maybe that’s me remembering fondly a past of endless opportunities and command lines. The modern Web is darker, more closed, more commercialised, and we’ll just have to accept it as it is.


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