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Tim Berners-Lee, The World Wide Web, And … Alvy Singer?

Published: 2012-02-12
It was almost like that scene from Woody Allen's Annie Hall:

Alvy Singer: [the man behind him in line is talking loudly]
What I wouldn't give for a large sock with horse manure in it!
Alvy Singer: [to audience]
Whaddya do when you get stuck in a movie line with a guy like this behind you?

Man in Theatre Line: Wait a minute, why can't I give my opinion? It's a free country!

Alvy Singer: He can give it... do you have to give it so loud? I mean, aren't you ashamed to pontificate like that? And the funny part of it is, Marshall McLuhan, you don't know anything about Marshall McLuhan!

Man in Theatre Line: Oh, really? Well, it just so happens I teach a class at Columbia called “TV, Media and Culture." So I think my insights into Mr. McLuhan, well, have a great deal of validity!

Alvy Singer: Oh, do ya? Well, that's funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here, so, so, yeah, just let me...
[pulls McLuhan out from behind a nearby poster]
Alvy Singer: come over here for a second... tell him!

Marshall McLuhan: I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work! You mean my whole fallacy is wrong. How you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing!

Alvy Singer: Boy, if life were only like this!

Well, for a brief, shining moment in (of all places) Tyler, Texas, life actually was a little like this.

The scene: A federal courtroom in east Texas.
The drama: A lawsuit by a patent troll who said he owned the rights to the “interactive web"—and is here to collect some back rent.
Dramatis persona: Tim Berners-Lee. Perhaps you've heard of him. He invented the World Wide Web.

Oh, to have been in Tyler last week.
It was the stage for a showdown in one of the most bizarre patent troll cases ever, pitting (metaphorically if not in fact) expert witness Berners-Lee against some punk who wanted to make his name by taking out a very, very big gun in a shootout. The plaintiff, Eolas, claimed it owned patents that entitled it to royalties from anyone whose website used “interactive" features, like pictures that the visitor can manipulate, or streaming video. The claim, by Eolas's owner, Chicago biologist Michael Doyle, was that his was the first computer program enabling an “interactive web."

If Texas was still the Wild West this might have been settled at High Noon at some dusty, just OK coral with single-action Colt .45 revolvers. There was no gunplay but for geekdom—trust me—the calm morning testimony in an air-conditioned courtroom was just as exciting.

On Wednesday, Jennifer Doan, a Texarkana lawyer representing Yahoo and Amazon, examines Berners-Lee for the plaintiffs, which include Google, Amazon, and Yahoo.

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."

Doan: “And who owns the web?"

Berners-Lee: “We do."


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