No, WIPO Boss Did Not Say The Web Would Have Been Better If Patented... But His Comment Was Still Nonsensical

from the setting-the-record-straight dept

A whole bunch of you have been submitting this BoingBoing post which claims that WIPO director Francis Gurry claimed that the World Wide Web would have been better off if it had been patented. That was an interesting claim based on two things. First, a couple months ago, we had put forth a hypothetical about what would the web look like, if Tim Berners-Lee had patented it. Second, WIPO boss Francis Gurry has shown in the past to be much more thoughtful and realistic when it comes to intellectual property -- so the arguments seemed a bit out of character from what I'd heard from him before.

So I listened to the session, which you can find as the top righthand video on this page. Gurry's comments are a little silly, but he does not say that the web would have been better off if it were patented. Instead, he's responding to the point raised earlier in the session about the importance of investment in basic research, and noted that CERN -- where the web was first developed -- might have been able to invest more in basic research if it had been able to receive a small bit of revenue from patenting the web. In that context, his comments make slightly more sense:
Intellectual property is a very flexible instrument. So, for example, had the world wide web been able to be patented, and I think that is a question in itself, perhaps the amount of investment that has gone into or would be able to go into basic science would be different. If you had found a very flexible licensing model, in which the burden for the innovation of the world wide web had been shared across the whole user community in a very fair and reasonable manner, with a modest contribution for everyone for this wonderful innovation, it would have enabled enormous investment in turn in further basic research. And that is the sort of flexibility that is built into the intellectual property system. It is not a rigid system...
He certainly is not arguing that the web would have been better off -- just that it's possible that CERN and its investments in basic research would have been better off. Of course, there is a counter argument to that -- which is that if it had locked up the web in such a manner, the web that Berners-Lee created would not be "the web." It's doubtful that Marc Andreessen would have paid a license fee, no matter how "reasonable," to build the first "successful" web browser, Mosaic. It's likely that something else would have come along instead -- perhaps similar, but not the same.

Separately, I'd argue that, in an indirect manner, it's quite likely that the widespread success of the internet and the openness that it embraced has contributed significantly more back to the ability to do basic research than if CERN had been able to collect a few dollars for the invention. What the web did do was certainly raise CERN's profile even higher around the globe, and that likely opened up new opportunities for research and funding, among other things. Gurry's mistake, here, is in assuming that the necessary ingredient for increased basic research is merely money -- and also only money that comes directly in return for a concept. That's not true. As the rest of the panel he sat on discussed, the key ingredients of innovation tend to be openness, sharing and access to information. All of those contribute back to lots of different areas, including basic research. So I doubt his conclusion is accurate, but it's unfair to accuse him of saying something he simply did not say.

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  1. icon
    Richard (profile), 10 Oct 2011 @ 8:29am

    Re: Goodwill

    To clarify the detail:

    At present CERN's main activity (LHC) has a rather mixed public image - with various (phony) scare stories and jokes about stupid mistakes that have wasted large sums of money. Add to that the fact that most of the public has little or no clue about the purpose of LHC and you do not have a wonderful climate for asking for extra funds.

    The one positive is the fact that the web was given to the world.

    Now consider what would have happened if Gurry's idea had been followed. Everyone would have to pay a "CERN tax" for their internet activities - which would probably be unpopular in the same way that the BBC license fee is (even though people like the BBC!).

    It would not be long before all other sources of funding for CERN would start to dry up and CERN would turn into a quasi-commercial organisation and probably end up being privatised like Qinetic. Basic research would be dead in a decade.

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