Today, 6th August 2011, is the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web (not the Internet, as has wrongly been reported by far too many media sources already, but that’s another story). The first public website went live on this day in 1991, on a page hosted at http://info.cern.ch/. The original web page itself is no longer around, but there’s a cached copy of an early version of it here.
The rest, as they say, is history. Although the Internet itself had been around a while before the web, it was the web which was the trigger for the transformation of the Internet from a military and academic speciality to a mainstream communication system. From Amazon to Zopa, eBay to the Pirate Bay, international news to personal views, it’s hard now to imagine life without it.
All this, though, only exists because of the remarkable foresight of Tim Berners-Lee and his employers at CERN. Not just in their vision to create the world-wide-web (to use the hyphenated form preferred in the early days), but also to release it. As TBL (to use the common in-crowd abbreviation) put it in his announcement to the alt.hypertext newsgroup,
It’s copyright CERN but free distribution and use is not normally a problem.
Those few words were crucial to the success of the web. By not attempting to use copyright as a means of asserting control over the nascent web community, and by choosing not to patent any aspect of it, CERN ensured that intellectual property wasn’t a barrier to innovation.
We take the web for granted these days. But it could easily have been very different. If CERN had taken the approach later attempted by BT then every ISP and every website operator would need to pay CERN for the right to use it. Those costs would certainly have slowed development, and quite possibly strangled it. If CERN had retained the right to decide who was authorised to use their code and their technology, and pursued unauthorised users in the same way that some rights holders now pursue those who use their content in a way they disapprove of, then the web would be a fraction of the size it is now.
The web isn’t just a technological success story, it’s also a social and legal one. And it illustrates one principle which should be paramount in the minds of any legislator trying to grapple with how to make our Intellectual Property laws fit for the 21st century: There are times when the public benefit of not enforcing copyright massively outweighs any possible justification for retaining control. And if major rights holders will not reach that conclusion themselves, then the law must make it for them.