Twenty years of a free and open www

Avatar

Robert Cailliau was Tim Berners-Lee's first collaborator on the World Wide Web project at CERN. A tireless promoter of the web, he established the World Wide Web conference series, the European Commission's Web For Schools project, and was instrumental in making the web available on a royalty-free basis. Here he writes on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of a free, open web.

Somewhere in 1992, when there were still only a handful web servers in the world (fewer than 50, I seem to remember) Tim Berners-Lee and I were thinking of how to spread this thing.  Obviously the rights belonged to CERN, and the trend at the time was for universities to patent their inventions and make money from them.  There were several models, one being to ask for royalties for every installation of the software.  There was also the possibility for us to try to buy it from CERN for a lump sum, leave, and set up a company based on the World Wide Web (WWW).

There were many discussions and even several proposals for pricing.  But the Gopher experience was not encouraging:  when the University of Minnesota started asking royalties, the use of Gopher stagnated.

From my own previous experience I was more inclined to start a company.  Tim asked me if I wanted to be rich.  I had not really thought about that as the goal of a business, but I answered that it would help.

We had a few more serious brainstorming sessions about the status of WWW, but in the end a few things became clear:  what we had was not a patentable, slick "App", we had standards (html, http) and a few pieces of software that used them, but nothing shining.  There were also a fair number of highly developed content networks already in operation, several in the US, several in Europe.  We would be competing with those, and doing it on a platform called the internet, that nobody outside academia had heard much about.

Broadly speaking the big choice was between, on the one hand, licensing the software under restrictive commercial conditions, and, on the other hand, making the WWW software freely available, following the spirit of the CERN Convention.

It took some time to decide what to do, because the arguments were complex and it was not clear what would happen to WWW in either case.  Finally, as we were more interested in the excitement of making something useful than in getting rich, we decided to use the traditional CERN model for technology spin-off: make it freely available.  The concept of Open Source licensing still being in its infancy, we opted to put the WWW software in the public domain, relinquishing CERN’s intellectual property rights in it.

Robert Cailliau running WorldWideWeb software at CERN in June 1995 (Image: CERN)

I then set out to make this decision official, i.e. publish a solid legal document. This needed close collaboration with the CERN Legal Service, and I spent some six months (elapsed time, of course) bringing this to a good end.  The Legal Service worked hard on this, because they had no experience with this type of situation, they had to study quite a number of similar cases from outside CERN.  The whole thing was also complicated by the fact that CERN is not one country's institute, it belongs to 20 individual member states.  I also had to ensure that the document was endorsed by the CERN management and signed by at least two directors.

A simple document was signed on 30 April 1993, and the rest is history.

People say that WWW took off in a spectacular way, but compared to earlier technologies of worldwide influence such as the railways, electricity and aviation, it was not any faster.  One can argue that it was perhaps considerably slower:  the railways had to be laid down physically, with few or no machines and few supply roads other than the rails just laid down.  The web software could be downloaded from our servers over the existing internet in a matter of seconds or minutes.  Yet it still took at least six years before the media regularly covered WWW progress, and we are still talking about digital divides.  I believe the reason lies in the entirely different nature of the digital world.  Trains and planes are easy to explain, their purpose is well defined and they touch our physical lives.  But the web absorbs all the attention of our brain.  No physical technology does that.

There are only very few crucial properties of WWW:  it sits on top of the internet naming scheme, it is such simple hypertext that it does scale up indefinitely, it uses a simple text-based format, it is guided by open, free standards that anyone may contribute to.  And through CERN’s decision to put the initial WWW software in the public domain it was made freely available very early on.

More on the twentieth anniversary of a free, open web:

"The open internet and the web" - Vinton G Cerf

The first website - info.cern.ch