The document CERN signed that made the technology behind the World Wide Web available without restrictions to everyone in the world showed up recently as part of CERN’s celebration of 20 years of the open web. Back at the start of the 90s, I was at IBM working on video conferencing (you’ll still find my name next to the well-known port number allocation for it), and among my responsibilities was making information available on the newly-popular Internet. We had a web page for our project, and did consider the idea of publishing information through another, much more widely used technology of the time – called Gopher. However, doing so was more complicated, and also we were concerned that running our own server might require some sort of license. So we stuck with just a web page.
Our experience was duplicated all over the world. Despite being very widely used, Gopher stagnated in the face of an open alternative. People don’t like to have to ask permission to get their job done, so given a choice between a technology that can be used without having to seek permission and one which requires approval from its owner (and all the corresponding bureaucracy that goes with that with ones employer) the decision is easy.
People have asked “what would have happened if the Web was patented”. The answer is there would never have been a web. It would have been an interesting project stuck in a lab somewhere, unable to get any traction against the more widely used Gopher and probably never heard of. What made the WWW was CERN’s decision to make it freely available. We should be immeasurably grateful for that enlightened decision.