What if Tim Berners-Lee had Patented the Web?

An interesting thought experiment over on techdirt: “What if Tim Berners-Lee had patented the web?

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.

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  1. It’s an interesting idea, but I’m not entirely convinced. I think communication, which is the essence of the internet as we know it and the part that the OP believes would be missing, is something we strive for. Alternates, possibly better, would have emerged. FOSS alternatives always find a way.

    –Posted from my Linux machine, from my Firefox browser.

  2. It really depends on what the claims would have been, doesn’t it? Just because there is a patent on something doesn’t mean everything about it is covered.

  3. Baloney on many fronts. Here are just a couple observations:

    1) the notions of hypertexting and sgml and rich layout were already in the public domain, alternatives would have been created.

    2) there are patents galore around mpeg encoding but that hasn’t stopped it from becoming pervasive. Companies have figured out how to deal with.

  4. kinda similar precept, interesting post: http://esr.ibiblio.org/?p=3335

  5. Yeah, gee. It’s nice that Intel’s x86 patents are expiring as well. Perhaps the personal computer industry will finally get somewhere… (Not everything patented lingers in patent troll hell. The routers, dialup, dsl, and cable modems, and other bits of technology that make up the internet are all covered by patents up the whazoo (V.42bis, the compression protocol for dialup modems, had to be licensed from three separate companies.) A lot of the time, the patent system pretty much ends up working the way its supposed to.

    (The recent iPad patent issue is over a Design Patent (not a technology patent), anyway, isn’t it? A design patent is the thing that says you can register the way a particular product LOOKS; a sort of copyright for physical objects. That’s nice if you’re a woodworker whose earring holder is unique only in its clever looks (to mention one circumstance I’ve seen where a patent was claimed and deserved but no “invention” was involved), but not so great if you manage to get a patent on a “design” of “a computer that looks like a pad of paper.”)

  6. It’s pretty obvious these patents are being used by our enemies to destroy our nation’s economy. I don’t even want to think about the end of that money trail.

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