I have said a number of times in this space that I believe Tim Berners-Lee to be one of the greatest software architects of all time. This conversation, as recorded in Wired, not only reiterates this belief but also shows how incredibly humble and self-effacing Berners-Lee is, as well as being the grand master of the understatement.Last week in a place called Tyler, eastern Texas, a scene which could have come straight out of a Woody Allen film was played out. For background on the case see here but, in a nutshell, a company called Eolas, claims it owns patents that entitle it to royalties from anyone whose website uses “interactive” features, like pictures that the visitor can manipulate, or streaming video. The claim, by Eolas’s owner, one Michael Doyle, is that his was the first computer program enabling an “interactive web.” Tim Berners-Lee was called as an expert witness and was being cross-examined by Jennifer Doan, a Texas lawyer representing two of the defendants Yahoo and Amazon. This is how part of the cross-examination went.
“When Berners-Lee invented the web, did he apply for a patent on it,” Doan asked.
“No,” said Berners-Lee.
“Why not?” asked Doan.
“The internet was already around. I was taking hypertext, and it was around a long time too. I was taking stuff we knew how to do…. All I was doing was putting together bits that had been around for years in a particular combination to meet the needs that I have.” [My italics]
Doan: “And who owns the web?”
Berners-Lee: “We do.”
Doan: “The web we all own, is it ‘interactive’?”
“It is pretty interactive, yeah,” said Berners-Lee, smiling.
I just love this. Here’s the guy that has given us one of the most game changing technologies of all time FOR NO PERSONAL GAIN TO HIMSELF, finding himself in a out of the way courtroom explaining one of the fundamental tenets of software architecture: putting together bits that have been around.
Setting aside the whole thorny question of software patents and whether they are actually evil this is surely one of the greatest and most understated descriptions of what we, as software architects, actually do by the master himself. Thank you Tim.