Sir Tim Berners-Lee famously gave the source code to the World Wide Web away for free. But now he has raised over $5.4 million by auctioning off an autographed copy as a non-fungible token, or NFT, in a sale through Sotheby’s.
Berners-Lee’s NFT joins eclectic company, including Jack Dorsey’s first tweet, a New York Times column, a Pringles flavor called “CryptoCrisp,” a lifetime coupon code to an online kratom retailer, a lease for a coliving space in San Francisco’s Mission District, a sexually explicit direct message allegedly from the disgraced actor Armie Hammer, and a 52-minute audio file of farts. But this most recent addition to the endless list of collectible NFTs is an artifact with an air of gravitas, a souvenir from a vaunted internet pioneer. Berners-Lee wrote the code while working at CERN in Switzerland in the early ’90s, creating what he called the “WorldWideWeb” from a NeXT computer. In addition to the copy of the code itself, the auction haul included a 30-minute animation depicting the code being written, a scalable graphics vector representing the full code, and a letter Berners-Lee wrote this year reflecting on what it was like to write the code. (Berners-Lee will donate the proceeds, but has not specified where he plans to direct the funds.)
It’s a peculiar moment for internet history buffs. The sale offers an opportunity to feel ownership over a significant bit of history. But it also mashes up two disparate strains of techno-optimism. The code Berners-Lee wrote has not been copyrighted or otherwise protected by intellectual property law since 1993, just a few years after it was created. “He pushed CERN to release it as fully public domain,” says Marc Weber, the curatorial director at the Computer History Museum. “Some people think that was really critical in making the web succeed.” It was a foundational moment for the free software movement, an example of how innovators could push history forward by choosing collaboration over profit. Now, decades later, this iconically free code is finally getting monetized.
Or, sort of. Berners-Lee isn’t selling the actual code, but the equivalent of an autographed copy. The rise of NFTs gave Berners-Lee an opportunity to fundraise off his legacy without attempting to claw back intellectual property rights, which at this point would have been impossible anyway. Thanks to NFTs, Berners-Lee can keep his code in the public domain and simultaneously entice someone to buy a certificate of ownership. Is this commodification directly opposed to the ethos of the open source movement? Well, yeah. But also: If the code itself is still public domain, does it matter, especially when there’s so much money sloshing around?
Berners-Lee doesn’t think so. He told The Guardian last week that the sale doesn’t change anything about the openness of the web, or the code itself. “I’m not even selling the source code. I’m selling a picture that I made, with a Python program that I wrote myself, of what the source code would look like if it was stuck on the wall and signed by me,” he said.
But the sale has implications beyond the WWW. As archivist Rick Prelinger wrote in a recent column for WIRED, “Nothing could be a greater cultural and ethical shock to archives than NFTs.” Prelinger argues that monetizing historically significant holdings could make important documents less accessible to genealogists and other scholars without deep pockets. Weber shares those concerns, as the Computing History Museum doesn’t have the deep pockets of independent crypto-millionaire collectors; if minting code as an NFT becomes a standard, collecting historically significant copies of code for the museum’s software library could become more difficult. In some NFT sales, the original digital artifact is subsequently removed from the web—for example, when the makers of the popular meme video “Charlie Bit My Finger” sold the clip as an NFT, they subsequently removed the original from YouTube.
In the case of Berners-Lee’s NFT set, the tokenization doesn’t create any real scarcity because of public domain, and the copy he sold came from a TAR file in his personal possession. But that raises another question: Why bother buying an NFT of work already readily available? That one is simpler to answer. Cassandra Hatton, who ran the auction, compares Berners-Lee’s project to the sales of rare manuscripts, like Darwin’s The Origin of Species. Although countless editions exist, she says, they in no way diminish the desire to own the original.
And even though code isn’t always thought of as something to collect and cherish like a rare manuscript, the excitement around Berners-Lee’s sale underlines that it can be presented as art, something worth preserving for its symbolism as well as its utility. Even seen as a pure art object, though, code turned into NFTs will still stir up conversations about authenticity. Artist Ben Gentilli, who works under the name Robert Alice, has also sold an artistic rendering of historically significant code. His project “Portrait of a Mind” is an elaborate conceptual art piece comprising 40 hand-painted circular canvases embossed with fragments of Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin code; each physical canvas is paired with a corresponding NFT. Alice is supportive of Berners-Lee’s auction, though he too is curious about what the sale means for archiving the digital world, particularly artifacts from the early internet. He suspects some criticism may arise from people who don’t like the idea of retroactively authenticating preexisting code. “The blockchain is supposed to be the moment of genesis,” he says. “The fact that there are these two mismatched time stamps—when Berners-Lee did it and when it was minted—wouldn’t sit well for a blockchain purist.”
Then there’s the pressing issue of the environmental impact of the Ethereum blockchain. Some artists and thinkers who are otherwise deeply invested in viewing code’s artistic potential are resistant to this new wave of commodifying it on energy-inefficient proof-of-work blockchains. “I’m all for finding new ways to support the digital artists, but we live on a finite planet,” says Code as Creative Medium co-author and environmental engineer Tega Brain. Like so many other NFT skeptics, Brain sees the choice to utilize Ethereum as undeniably wasteful. Sotheby’s, as one might expect, disagrees: “The carbon footprint of this particular NFT is negligible,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to WIRED. If Ethereum-based NFT sales become a standard for selling historical web artifacts, expect continued pushback from not just digital archivists but anyone concerned with how that blockchain impacts the environment as well.
Berners-Lee’s auction takes place as the mania for NFTs subsides. It may be some time before we see a sale as splashy and outrageous as artist Beeple’s $69 million auction in March. The success of Berners-Lee’s sale, though, provides a new case study for how tokenizing history can be wildly profitable, too. While this won’t change the way anyone uses the web, it is likely to have ripple effects in how archivists and collectors approach the storage of digital objects—and how the next generation of computing geniuses decide what to do with their achievements.
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