Twenty years ago, the web was donated to mankind

Exactly twenty years ago, a document was published that played a huge role in establishing the web as we know it today. Twenty years later, and this simple and straightforward document is proof of an irrefutable fact: while closed technologies can change markets, open technologies can change the world.

I personally believe the web is one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind. It’s right up there with the printing press and radio/TV, but just one notch below things like fire and agriculture. It’s only a few decades old, but has already had a huge effect on the world and mankind that inhabits it. Not all the web has brought is positive, but then, is there something out there that has done so?

Few people know, but the reason the web has been as successful as it has been is because CERN released its foundations into the public domain. The twenty year old document in which they announced this is, therefore, one of the most important documents in computing.

The following CERN software is hereby put into the public domain:

  • W 3 basic (“line mode”) client
  • W 3 basic server
  • W 3 library of common code.

CERN’s intention is to further compatibility, common practices and standards in networking and computer supported collaboration. This does not constitute a precedent to be applied to any other CERN copyright software.

CERN relinquishes all intellectual property to this code, both source and binary form and permission is granted for anyone to use, duplicate, modify and redistribute it.

No patents, no copyright, no royalties, nothing. CERN’s James Gillies is clear: “Without it you would have had web-like things but they would have belonged to Microsoft or Apple or Vodafone or whoever else. You would not have a single open standard for everyone.” He’s right.

Without CERN removing all artificially constructed legal barriers, we wouldn’t be where we are today. Commercial entities like Microsoft and Apple want to lock you into their products – had they designed the web, you’d have to pay through the nose for patents, they would have actively blocked and killed competitors trying to use their version of the web, and they would have made a dreary place with little to no innovation.

This week, the document turned twenty. A document which, perhaps more than any other, proves that while closed technologies can change markets, open technologies can change the world.


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