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Sotheby’s is selling a piece of web history, signed by its creator

The father of the web sees promise in NFTs.

Tim Berners-Lee is sitting at a table, looking at the camera and gesturing to the computer monitor in front of him.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee invented the web in 1989.
Rebecca Heilweil covered emerging technology, artificial intelligence, and the supply chain.

If you’re reading this article, you’re probably doing so on the World Wide Web. And if you’d like to own a piece of the web’s history, you now have the chance to purchase a copy of its original code in the form of a non-fungible token, or NFT.

On Tuesday, Sotheby’s auction house announced that it would be accepting bids for the original, time-stamped files created by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the British computer scientist who is credited with inventing the web in 1989. These 9,555 lines of code are packaged in the form of an NFT, a certified digital asset that’s stored on a blockchain and can be traded and appraised. The historic collection of code includes the three protocols that act as the foundation of the web — Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), Uniform Resource Locators (URLs), and Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) — as well as the original instructions Berners-Lee wrote in HTML for the very first web users.

“This unique and singular auction will celebrate Sir Tim’s groundbreaking achievement, in which collectors will finally have the opportunity, thanks to the NFT format, to own the ultimate digitally-born artefact,” said Sotheby’s vice president and global head of science and pop culture, Cassandra Hatton, in a statement. The online auction, which is called “This Changed Everything,” runs from June 23 to June 30. Bidding starts at $1,000.

The auction comes as NFTs have entered the mainstream. In recent months, the world has seen the emergence of NFT marketplaces, the sale of a New York Times column in NFT form, the invention of NFT fragrances, and even the existence of NFT art created by a toilet paper brand. As people get more comfortable and excited about this blockchain-based digital platform, it remains to be seen whether the concept is really a valuable new way of preserving and selling online artifacts, or whether it’s just an overhyped internet gimmick. The auctioning off of a copy of the web’s original source code in token form seems to be evidence that, at least in some applications, NFTs can be more than a digital stunt; they can serve as a way to preserve and commodify pieces of web history.

A poster of the lines of code that established the World Wide Web.
Also included in the NFT auction is this digital poster.

The code that’s up for sale is particularly historic. It represents a fundamental shift in how we use technology to communicate, and the web still serves as the foundation for much of what we do online today. But as the original code for the web has long been in the public domain, the winner of the auction will get an NFT that includes time-stamped files of the visual source code as well as a digital letter from Berners-Lee, an animation of the original code, and a digital “poster” that includes a representation of Berners-Lee’s signature. The product will be stored on the ethereum blockchain, and like other NFTs, will be completely unique.

“That seems to be the way just to create scarcity of items that wouldn’t otherwise be scarce, like digital art,” Ian Milligan, a history professor who focuses on web archives at the University of Waterloo, told Recode. “It seems almost like it’s not just the source code, but it really is this comprehensive package that a collector could really cherish having.”

Until the auction ends, we won’t know just how much people are willing to bid on this NFT version of internet history, but the auction is funding initiatives that Berners-Lee and his wife support, according to Sotheby’s. Recent sales of certain pieces of NFT art show that some are willing to pay millions of dollars for these digital artifacts.

In April, the first NFT auction at Sotheby’s, which included various pieces of digital art, raked in nearly $17 million. The auction house has since seen several million-dollar sales of NFTs, and at least one more auction is planned down the line.

Other auction houses have had even greater success. In March, Christie’s sold an NFT for more than $69 million.

An NFT version of a piece of art called “Everydays: The First 5,000 Days” from the digital artist Beeple sold for $69.3 million at auction.
Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images

There seems to be a particular interest in NFTs related to internet history. Sotheby’s sold a version of what’s supposed to be the first-ever NFT, which was created back in 2014, for $1.4 million. In March, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s first tweet was auctioned off in NFT form for nearly $3 million, and an NFT of the famous “Charlie bit my finger” YouTube video, went for a winning bid of just over $760,000 (its new owner has said the video will stay up on the streaming service). Just a few days before Sotheby’s announced its Berners-Lee auction, an NFT of the original image of the “Doge” dog meme, which was also the inspiration for the viral cryptocurrency dogecoin, sold for $4 million.

Now, Berners-Lee wants to support this way of storing and selling versions of the internet’s history. In a statement announcing the auction, he called NFTs “the latest playful creations in this realm, and the most appropriate means of ownership that exists.” By auctioning off this bit of history in NFT form, the father of the web is lending some of his own credibility to the still-nascent technology — and the idea that it could become more than a fad.