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How the Decision Not to Patent Gave Rise to the Internet

Interesting post from NPR about CERN’s decision in 1993 not to patent the basic protocol of the world-wide web. If they had not done this who knows what would have happened. (It is odd that they contacted law professor Mark Lemley to ask him whether the web could have been patented, as Lemley was never a practicing patent attorney. It’s like asking a podiatrist a detailed question about brain surgery. But what-evs.) CERN might have had a patent, but on what—on a moribund, unused protocol.

This is illustrative of the fact that many current technologies and practices would have been  retarded, more severely distorted, or even obliterated altogether, had IP been enforced as it is “supposed to be.” For a case in point, consider Microsoft’s OS (see Bill Gates’ 1991 Comments on Patents) and other technologies like laser printers and fashion (see Leveraging IP). And future technologies like 3D printing are of course imperiled even now by IP (see The IP War on 3D Printing Begins; Masnick, Don’t Let Patents Kill 3D Printing).

Pro-IP “libertarians” should consider this. The Internet (and the www) is possibly the single greatest tool for freedom in human history, and it has only been around for about 17 years; its existence was for a while tenuous, and could have been retarded, severely distorted, or even extinguished, by a fluke of IP law. This is yet another demonstration that  IP is a blight on humanity, progress, technology, and liberty. (h/t Shayne Wissler)

‘The Single Most Valuable Document In The History Of The World Wide Web’


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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To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.