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Patents The Internet Software Your Rights Online

What If Tim Berners-Lee Had Patented the Web? 154

Posted by timothy
from the welcome-to-compuserve-again dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Last week Slashdot had the story that the web had turned 20 years old. Of course, patents also last 20 years, which has resulted in some asking what would have happened if Tim Berners-Lee had patented the web? Thankfully, he didn't (and wouldn't). But we'd be living in a very different (and probably less interesting) world if he had."
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What If Tim Berners-Lee Had Patented the Web?

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  • Open internet limited by lawsuit. There would still be an open internet, and things like gopher and Usenet would have grown and been able to do a little innovation. However, if gopher tried to expand to be more web like, we would have seen a legal fight that not only delayed innovation, but limited the arenas in which we innovated.

    Well, he could have patented it and if he had tried to exercise those patents, my guess is that people would have been put off until a better more liberating solution came along that circumvented those very patents. It's odd that Techdirt mentions Gopher protocol. That was licensed software and, as I've speculated before [], died because it cost money to use.

    Techdirt's usually a good read but I don't agree with his assessment on this one. I believe we would have a completely different protocol and paradigm that might have taken longer to achieve and might have been better or worse. Who's to know? I think Gopher's example makes it plenty obvious that any patented solution limping along would be ravenously devoured by an open alternative.

    Had it been patented, I simply don't believe it would have been the final solution.

    • by Zerth (26112)

      Hrm.. There's a question: if we had stuck with gopher-based internet, would monkey punching flash ads still have happened?

    • Anyone remember "Sneaker net"
      • by Z00L00K (682162)

        I have worn out a few sneakers by now.

        And the deep-frozen yellow garden hose - that's something to have a love/hate-relationship to. Add a DELNI to it too. (I have one somewhere together with a dot matrix printer with serial interface)

    • by mickwd (196449)

      Here in the UK, the big news recently has been the riots. The majority of the public is disgusted with the behaviour of many of those taking part - they were only interested in taking a load of stuff for free, lining their own pockets, and not giving a damn for any damage done to the overall public good.

      People are using software patents in the same manner, for the same reasons. It's a wholly-unjustifiable free-for-all money grab.

      • by toriver (11308)

        lining their own pockets, and not giving a damn for any damage done to the overall public good.

        Ah, you mean the Tories. :)

    • by dkf (304284)

      It's odd that Techdirt mentions Gopher protocol. That was licensed software and, as I've speculated before [], died because it cost money to use.

      I remember gopher. Once network bandwidth expanded enough, gopher died a death because it was ugly and hard to use. The killer feature of HTTP was HTML; being able to link arbitrarily from any document to any other was incredibly useful. Gopher had index pages - with nothing but links - and link-less leaf pages; real world data isn't that neat. Inlined pictures and forms and SSL, for all that they have caused so much grief since, just hammered home how little anyone really wanted Gopher's restrictions. HTTP

    • by dbIII (701233)
      Gopher was probably mentioned because Hyper-G (later morphing into VRweb) was a gopher inspired hyperlink system being worked on in Austria at the time.
      I think they merely wrote something you don't agree with because they were aware of some things you missed. I didn't know about it either until the web had reached the point where even Microsoft were reacting to it.
  • by sourcerror (1718066) on Friday August 12, 2011 @06:14PM (#37075210)

    We would just download Word docs that point to each other.

    • by iggymanz (596061)

      usenet could have been extended, to have indefinite retention, url-like constructs in messages

  • by suso (153703) * on Friday August 12, 2011 @06:15PM (#37075216) Homepage Journal

    Then Doug Engelbart would have sued him.

  • Others had prior art, from Xanadu to HyperCard. But thanks again anyway, TBL.
    • by sjames (1099)

      Since when has prior art stopped a patent application? It had to be valid and novel, it's done with a computer .

      • HyperCard's done with a computer.
        • by 0123456 (636235)

          Yes, but not on the Internet .

          • by Teancum (67324)

            Yes, but not on the Internet .

            Define internet please.

            HyperCard was done on AppleTalk..... close enough that I don't think you can make a legal, mathematical, or rational distinction between the two.

            • by KiloByte (825081)

              Your fallacy is trying to apply logic to the patent system.

        • by sjames (1099)

          Yes, so it is also valid and novel! That is always the finding!

  • It seems like there's a rash of articles lately assuming Berners-Lee patented the web as we know it. He didn't. What he invented is implemented by a tiny fraction of the code for a modern web browser. So you have to get much more specific about which of his innovations were patentable at the time, and what alternative technologies were available for those.
    • by siddesu (698447) on Friday August 12, 2011 @07:01PM (#37075676)
      He could have patented the thing he implemented and released over telnet in 1991 when I first tried it. Basically, the concept of a message from a resource that contained links to other resources, a server that delivered that message from the said resource over a simple protocol, and the format of the message and the mechanism of the said message's generation being transparent to the caller of the resource. With a computer, over the internet. In his articles at the time there was a lot written about different ways of displaying the said message. More than enough to cover all of the WWW as we know it.
  • by MacTO (1161105) on Friday August 12, 2011 @06:30PM (#37075356)

    A bit of computer history: Honeywell and Sperry Rand battled over fundamental patents for computers. The courts essentially said, 'Atanansoff created those ideas years ago. Oh, and Dr. Atanasoff, it's too late for you to patent those ideas. Ta-ta.' From what I've been told, that 'ta-ta' was just a polite way of giving all of the parties the finger because the courts realized that allowing Sperry Rand to enforce their patents would hold back the computer industry by decades.

  • ...Al Gore jokes. ;-)

    (And yes I know what he said, but the truth still hasn't stopped the jokes)

    • by Obfuscant (592200)

      but the truth still hasn't stopped the jokes)

      The truth is the reason for the jokes. We all know what he said, just some people want to deny it.

      "In a March 1999 interview with Wolf Blitzer, Gore said, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."" []. If you want to argue that he "promoted" the internet, fine, but to claim that "create" means simply "promote", you're wrong. Try telling the actual creators of JIF peanut butter that you created JIF peanut

      • by riverat1 (1048260) on Friday August 12, 2011 @07:16PM (#37075842)

        Al Gore brought the High Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1991 to Congress and got it passed. That was one of the fundamental pieces of legislation that took ARPANET from being a limited military/education network to the commercial Internet.

        In Wikipedia it says:

        Former Republican Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Newt Gingrich also stated: "In all fairness, it's something Gore had worked on a long time. Gore is not the Father of the Internet, but in all fairness, Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet, and the truth is -- and I worked with him starting in 1978 when I got [to Congress], we were both part of a "futures group" -- the fact is, in the Clinton administration, the world we had talked about in the '80s began to actually happen."

        I don't think saying his he created it is any more than normal political spin.

      • by Boronx (228853)

        From your link:

        But the real question is what, if anything, did Gore actually do to create the modern Internet? According to Vincent Cerf, a senior vice president with MCI Worldcom who's been called the Father of the Internet, "The Internet would not be where it is in the United States without the strong support given to it and related research areas by the Vice President in his current role and in his earlier role as Senator."

        Jabbing at Quayle for misspelling potato is also not fair, though he attempted to

        • "... Ultimately, however, marriage is a moral issue that requires cultural consensus, and the use of social sanctions. Bearing babies irresponsibly is, simply, wrong. Failure to support children one has fathered is wrong. We must be unequivocal about this.

          It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown – a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman – mocking the importance of a father, by bearing a child alone, and calling it

          • by tragedy (27079) on Friday August 12, 2011 @09:35PM (#37076626)

            A few comments about those statistics.

            First, "children born to unwed mothers" does not necessarily mean children raised by a single mother and no father, it just means children born to mothers who aren't yet married. In some times and places in the past (and even to a degree today in some places, even in the US), having a child out of wedlock could get you shunned, maybe even arrested, banished or executed. Sometimes it would all fall on the mother, sometimes on the mother and father, sometimes mostly on the father (pretty rare, of course). At some times, it was vitally important for the couple to marry the moment pregnancy was suspected, to conceal the fact that the child had been conceived out of wedlock. At other times, it was enough to marry some time before the birth so that the child wouldn't be born a "bastard". In the social context we're working in for the purpose of this discussion, there isn't really such a thing as a "bastard" or "illegitimate" child anymore. Sure, the word bastard still means what it means, but the connotations aren't what they once were. It's no longer necessary for a couple to marry to "legitimize" their children. For one thing, with the family court system and DNA testing, women aren't dependent on the father to make a public declaration of responsibility in the form of a marriage. For another, the social stigma of being a bastard has been reduced. So, when a couple who are not married are expecting a baby, far fewer of them feel the need to run out and get married right away to protect themselves and their child from scorn.

            To make a long story short (too late), your "children born to unwed mothers" statistic doesn't tell us if that extra 13% isn't just couples who don't feel the need to rush into marriage anymore, but still stay together to raise the child. For that matter, it doesn't give us divorce statistics on the 72% who were married in 1990 vs the 59% in 2008. All it tells us is what percent of children were born to to mothers who weren't married in two different years, not what percentage of children were raised only by their mothers.

            Secondly, your statistic from the Village Voice about "children brought up in single mother homes" (assuming that's what it actually says, since that part is paraphrased) tells us about statistics for children brought up in single mother homes, but doesn't differentiate between homes where the mother is single by choice and those where the mother is not. For that matter, it doesn't make any effort to account for the fact that single mother families are far more likely to also be low-income or poverty-stricken and to adjust for the typical increase in all sorts of crime statistics among lower income brackets.

            In other words, the idea that fictional characters deciding to raise their children alone leads to social problems is not supported at all by the statistics you quote.

        • The reason that Quayle (and Palin, for that matter) is mocked as a dolt is that the media decided to portray him as one. Politicians all say things that sound really dumb out of context. Nearly all politicians say things that sound dumb in context, because they're human. I could make Barack Obama sound like a blithering idiot with some well-chosen sound bites, and the same skill would let me make GW Bush sound like the greatest orator in decades.
          • by metacell (523607)

            I agree in principle, but in the case of Sarah Palin, I've seen whole interviews where she appears just as dumb. I've also seen the speech where she announced her resignation as governor (unedited), and there was barely a coherent thought in the whole speech. Palin's ignorance is far beyond what can be explained as everyday human fallability

            I think John Cleese has a point in this interview [].

          • ... and the same skill would let me make GW Bush sound like the greatest orator in decades.

            OK, you're on. The only rule I would add is that your quote has to be longer than one word.

      • by Teancum (67324)

        I will give credit to Al Gore for helping to sponsor legislation that did help fund the early internet backbone. That at least deserves some sort of recognition. It was also his effort that put an e-mail server into the White House when he was elected Vice-President and even came up with the presidential e-mail address of I don't know if it was him personally or one of his staffers, but he also was responsible for the "" domain to be registered. I think that count

      • Appropriate user name, have to say.

        But I think that those of us who aren't sitting in the back row shooting spitballs at the smart kids - i.e., non-Republicans - Gore's statement was pretty much accurate. The Internet was not a physical invention, like routers and modems; it was an institutional one. Facilities around the country had to agree on a common set of protocols and conventions for routing information between them. Bringing ARPANET to the public took planning and legislation, and Gore understood th

  • by DragonWriter (970822) on Friday August 12, 2011 @06:32PM (#37075388)

    A significant factor in the WWW explosion is that it was coming into its own as a an alternative right about the time that the most popular gopher server implementation stopped being free and there were fears that alternative implementations might be subject to attempts to collect money from the same source.

    An encumbered web would have reversed the incentive with regard to gopher v. WWW on that score

  • What we know of today is that business after business start staking claim after claim over internet technology and space. Patenting "the internet" has been ongoing since the beginning. We have seen it in things like GIF related patents for example. We have seen a continuing flood of "on the internet" patents and all manner of nonsense. Admittedly, the worst of this has only taken place recently but it has been around for a long while. How many things "internet" did Microsoft try to highjack over all thi

  • What if DARPA had patented the internet?

    • by DrVxD (184537)

      IANAL, but AIUI, since DARPA is part a US Gov't, then that would place it in the public domain

  • by Anonymous Coward

    How many awesome changes for the next 20 years are prevented by today's patents?
    How cool could the world be in 2031 if we had no (software) patents?

  • I think about this a lot! Think about where we would be if the lawyers of today existed when say the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, radio, television, vcr (betamax anyone?) microwave, etc.... were invented. In general its not that people are narrow minded today, just extremely greedy! I mean really, especially Apple. BTW, I think new features in Lion really ripped off the look and feel of Gnome3 especially scrolling. I think the open source community should speak to some lawyers and sue Apple and force t
    • by jo_ham (604554)

      Can't tell if trolling...

    • Think about where we would be if the lawyers of today existed when say the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, radio, television, vcr (betamax anyone?) microwave, etc.... were invented.

      They did. Same with patents. One hopes you are trolling and not genuinely this stupid.

  • Things would have been better because we would have pushed other avenues of science and technology more, such as space exploration and so on, rather than concentrate on the geeky and _inwards-looking_ pursuit of computers (and ultimately merging our brains with machines and living in virtual realities at the expense of real reality and outwards exploration). And I'm saying this as a computer scientists.
    • by monoqlith (610041)

      I disagree. The overwhelming trend in computer networking ever since the 60s has been towards higher and higher global connectivity. Slowly at first, and then an explosion. The infrastructure of the Internet was being developed with or without HTTP. If HTTP became proprietary another more open protocol, if not Gopher, would have taken its place eventually. Maybe we would have been sandboxed inside of online services for a little bit longer, but it would eventually have occurred to somebody to use Ted Nelson

      • by Prune (557140)
        The space travel incentive is a long-term one, and working exactly to ameliorate the biggest danger of communications technology--the more highly integrated the world is, the more we stand and _fall_ together. Without colonizing other worlds, where the speed of light presents a fundamental barrier to high integration (and interdependency), there is no redundancy. It is the equivalent of a biosphere with huge lack of biodiversity, where a single disaster may wipe every life out because there is not sufficien
  • by ThanatosMinor (1046978) on Friday August 12, 2011 @06:52PM (#37075574)
    I often wonder what the state of things would be if software and business method patents had been allowed 50 years earlier.

    Quicksort (and others) would be patented, as would the very idea of software encryption. Codebook + on a computer = patent!
  • Then we'd all be using Gopher.

  • by sootman (158191) on Friday August 12, 2011 @07:34PM (#37075992) Homepage Journal

    Tim Berners-Lee in Wired, March 1997 []

    Do you wish you'd started the Web as a business?
    If I'd started "Web Inc." it would have been just another proprietary system. You wouldn't have had this universality. For something like the Web to exist, it has to be based on public, nonproprietary standards.

    PS: That's Sir [] Tim Berners-Lee to you, bub. :-)

    • I recognize neither royalty nor its granted titles. :-)

      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by KiloByte (825081)

        Sorry, the thirteenth amendment was held off by courts as it would ban lawyers from titling themselves "esq" (and an unrelated amendment got its number). Thus, being an US citizen doesn't prevent Tim Berners-Lee from being granted nobility by the country of his birth.

  • Someone else would have come up with some other tagging system? HTML was derived from existing markup system.

  • by tsotha (720379)
    My first response would be "how could you patent a syntactical gloss over troff?", but I guess you can patent pretty much anything these days.
  • He might have brought us 4G wireless by 1998. With his second $100B, he may have cured cancer. While I share the /. community's disgust with patent trolls, SLAPP lawsuits, and (especially) patent exhaustion doctrine extentions, I think you also have to ask what would have happened if Thomas Edison hadn't patented the light bulb. Would he still have raised the money to bring it to scale, and would we still have created demand for utilities? Or would more people be in the dark? Is it the "freeness" of
    • The technologies that implement the data transfer that makes the Internet a viable operation are the hardest part, because they deal with real physical limits. The protocols were secondary - look at the success of AOL and MSN in the immediate pre-massive-Internet era, ca. 1992-1995, working on the same 14.4k, 28.8k, and 33.6k modems that were the original end-user implementation of the Internet.

      In 1994, my small university (~2500 undergrads) leased a 56k line to a nearby public university, and provided ei
    • by metacell (523607)

      If Tim Berners-Lee had earned $100B on patenting his inventions, that money would've had to be taken from consumers in the form of higher prices. That, in turn, would've meant that consumers would've had $100B less to pay other producers for other goods and services. (See the Parable of the broken window [].) I doubt Berners-Lee could've made significantly better use of those $100B than the original owners.

      It IS the freeness of the Internet which has made it a success. The freeness makes it very easy for anyon

  • Not to deprecate TBLs work, but there are many ways to implement pointers and tags. The web is a success because of those that got behind it ( even forcing a leviathon to stop destroying it ), certainly not for its elegance. Much worse would have been OK too.

  • that is all
  • Something different would have come along. And since another round of thought would have been put into its design, there's a fair chance it would have been better.

    • by metacell (523607)

      I doubt it. Betamax was released before VHS, for example.

      Open formats are often technically inferior, but still better because they're open.

  • Systems that were not open enough, so they failed. All major "online services" had their own formats, incompatible with each other. For example German company T-Online had 2 system. One was based on Prestel, a character based protocol allowing for user definable characters and 32 out of 4096 colours as well as 3 phase blinking. The other one was called "KITT" which allowed for GIF images and CD-Rom integration.

    I guess if it hadn't been for http and html, we'd probably be using public logins with telnet or

  • Am on an iPad on crappy network so won't bother to go looking for the docs, but working at CERN I can shed some light to the CERN mentality.

    It's been asked a hundred times and the answer by CERN management is always the same, ALL CERN dIscoveries are given to the public domain (from a new particle to a cheap insulation material to what not other technical invention). Even when patents are taken it's to protect the public domain from a hostile abuse by some corporation. No licensing fees are asked. So I gues

  • Assuming that he'd filed for his patents before the USPTO went insane, odds are low that they would have survived the prior art test. As others have mentioned, Gopher, FTP, and even several BBS systems would have been able to cover the prior art for the HTTP component. HTML was really just a bastardized version of SGML. And the entire concept of a hypertext page was predated by HyperCard and a bunch of work at Xerox PARC.

    Why are we even having this discussion?

  • They might have patented it and still let people use it for free, but retain control to keep the 'bad guys' from abusing things.

    Patents themselves are not evil. its how they are used that can be, or not.

  • I was once out to dinner with Tim (and some others). It was at a Benihana's in Napiersville, IL. It was for a W3C thing.

    After several sake-bombs, he wistfully expressed regret that he hadn't gotten a patent on the URL. He his idea was that he would have freed the patent, except for anyone putting a URL in print for purposes of advertising. Those folks would have had to pay him a fraction of a cent per impression.

    I'm not so sure how serious he was, be he really looked pretty sad.

  • If your really bored here is the pdf Harmony Xwindows Hyper-G browser []

  • From TFA: "Rather than an open World Wide Web, most people would have remained on proprietary, walled gardens, like AOL, Compuserve, Prodigy and Delphi. While those might have eventually run afoul of the patents, since they were large companies or backed by large companies, those would have been the few willing to pay the licensing fee."

    Proprietary systems would have competed to keep their networks clean. Fewer viruses. No virus protection systems slowing down my computer
  • It depends on what he did with the patents. Having a patent doesn't mean that no one else could use it. For example, He could've changed $0.10 per year to every website. This would be negligible compared to annual domain name registration, so it would have a negligible effect on adoption. He might've used that money for himself, or perhaps, used it more philanthropically - for example, to improve security on the web, research a cure for cancer, or help people around the world to get access to the web (w
  • There's not much he could actually patent since the vast majority of what he did was on technology built by others. He could have patented HTTP, I guess. However, it would just have been replaced by something else. He didn't invent hyperlinks or any of that stuff that HTML uses so there's really not much for him to patent that couldn't be trivially circumvented.

It is not for me to attempt to fathom the inscrutable workings of Providence. -- The Earl of Birkenhead