What If Tim Berners-Lee Had Patented The Web?

from the it-would-be-quite-different dept

You may have seen the stories a week or so ago about how it was the 20th anniversary of Tim Berners-Lee putting up the first web page. While many, many people still confuse "the web" with "the internet," Berners-Lee's creation really did help take what was mostly a system used by a few nerds (myself include) and add the elements that made it possible to go mainstream in a big, big, big way. And while many folks are talking about just how amazingly far we've come in just 20 years, Marco Arment (the InstaPaper guy) reminds us that if Berners-Lee had sought and received a patent for the web, it would just now be coming out of patent coverage.

That sets up an interesting thought experiment. Where do you think the world would be today if the World Wide Web had been patented? Here are a few guesses:
  • 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.
  • The innovation level in terms of the web would have been drastically limited. Concepts like AJAX, real time info, etc. would not be present or would be in their infancy. The only companies "innovating" on these issues would be those few large players, and they wouldn't even think of the value of such things.
  • No Google. Search would be dismal, and limited to only the proprietary system you were on.
  • Most people's use of online services would be more about "consumption" than "communication." There would still be chat rooms and such, but there wouldn't be massive public communication developments like blogs and Twitter. There might be some social networking elements, but they would be very rudimentary within the walled garden.
  • No iPhone. While some might see this as separate from the web, I disagree. I don't think we'd see quite the same interest or rise in smartphones without the web. Would we see limited proprietary "AOL phones?" Possibly, but with a fragmented market and not as much value, I doubt there's the necessary ecosystem to go as far as the iPhone.
  • 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.
What else do people think might have happened? I'd also argue that Berners-Lee himself would hardly be a name that most people knew about. When you think about just how limiting a world this would have been compared to what we have today... and then begin to wonder about what "web-like" invention of today is now locked up under patents, it really makes you wonder just how much we've held back innovation in this arena.

Filed Under: patents, tim berners-lee, world wide web

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  1. icon
    Richard (profile), 11 Aug 2011 @ 12:18pm


    You see a single patent as a fence, one that stops you completely and totally from any forward progress. But in reality, that fence is at best one section long, and not attached at either end.

    If that was true no one would ever bother to file a patent.

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