The auction of Sir Tim Berners-Lee's source code for the World Wide Web as a cryptographically backed Non-Fungible Token (NFT) has concluded, with the web daddy pocketing $5,434,500 for something already public.
Sir Tim is widely recognised as the inventor of the modern web, having proposed the melding of Hypertext with the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Domain Name System (DNS) in 1989. The late nights he spent hacking away on a NeXTcube workstation at CERN brought about the first web server, web browser, and website – and both the core concept and underlying source code were given away freely.
That latter point is, perhaps, why eyebrows were raised when Sir Tim announced he was to sell off that very same source code as an NFT – an offshoot of the cryptocurrency craze in which simple hyperlinks to hosted content are cryptographically signed and assigned to an "owner" who receives, as The Register put it, "bragging rights for stuff that's public."
Yesterday, Sir Tim's NFT was successfully auctioned at Sotheby's to an anonymous bidder who paid nearly $5.5m for the privilege – which sounds like a lot, until you hear that rival auction house Christie's recently sold a single JPEG image created by the artist Beeple for a somewhat heftier $69.3m.
For their cash the winning bidder has received an archived copy of the 9,555 lines of source code which made up the world's first HTML, HTTP, and URI implementations; an animated visualisation of the code being "typed" and riddled with errors created in the translation between Objective C and HTML for display; an SVG poster of the source code with a "graphic representation" of Sir Tim's signature; and a readme file with a letter written by Sir Tim reflecting on the work.
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Thanks to the nature of NFTs, though, all of this is readily available to non-owners: simply visit the Sotheby's auction page and you too can watch the video, read the letter, and even download a high-resolution PNG version of the poster.
The fact someone has splashed out nearly $5.5m on the NFT doesn't mean the underpinnings of the World Wide Web are suddenly under private ownership, though. "This NFT is historic and singular," Sotheby's claimed ahead of bidding, "but the code for the web and its use, knowledge, power, potential will remain open and available to us all to continue to innovate, create and initiate the next technological transformation that will be built upon what we see today, that we cannot yet imagine."
"It has been fun to go back and look over the code," Sir Tim said while preparing it for auction. "It is amazing to see the things that those relatively few lines of code, with a help of an amazing growing gang of collaborators across the planet, stayed enough on track to become what the web is now.
"I have never once felt I could relax and sit back – as the web was and is constantly changing. It is not yet the best it can be: there is always work to be done!"
Cassandra Hatton, global head of Science & Popular Culture at Sotheby's, crowed about the huge reception to the auction being a "fitting tribute" to the web daddy.
"This unique auction marked the first time a digital-born artefact has ever been offered for sale at Sotheby's, and this has to be the ultimate example of its kind – one minted by Sir Tim himself, a legend in the digital realm and far beyond, that relates to the most important invention of our era."
Sotheby's Europe chair Oliver Barker chimed in, saying that although the source code to the web is a "digital artefact that has existed since 1990, it is not until the emergence of NFTs that something like this could ever have been harnessed for sale."
"Some traditionalist commentators have dismissed NFTs as a fad and/or a bubble about to burst," said Nigel Green, deVere Group chief executive and founder, of the market for such things ahead of the auction's close. "I would suggest that these would have been the people, including some tech experts, to have also dismissed the internet in the 1990s and the likes of Amazon in the 2000s as 'hype.'
"The bottom line is that millennials and Gen Z especially have digital lives and it's natural to want to take digital representations of luxury brands, music and art into these worlds – and now they can – and this has value."
The Register was told ahead of the auction that the proceeds will be used to fund "initiatives that Sir Tim and Lady Rosemary Leith Berners-Lee support" as part of the pair's charitable works.
Sotheby's next NFT auction, for a digital artwork of Jay-Z by artist Derrick Adams, closes tomorrow. The current bid stands at $35,000.
God help us all. ®