On Wednesday, Tim Berners-Lee sold off a copy of the source code of the world wide web (that he’d written) for a mind-boggling $5.4 million at Sotheby’s. Apparently, though, the lucky anonymous buyer should have gotten a bit of a discount. Not long after the sale, a security researcher uncovered some errors hiding in the code.
Berners-Lee joined the likes of Jack Dorsey, Azalea Banks, and The Pringles Guy when he hopped on the NFT hype train earlier this month, auctioning off a bundle of items including 10,000 lines of the source code to the original web browser, and an animated video showing the code being entered. Berners-Lee defended the sale in an interview with The Guardian right after the auction was announced, saying that the move “is totally aligned with the values of the web.”
“The web is just as free and just as open as it always was,” he said. “The core codes and protocols on the web are royalty-free, just as they always have been. I’m not selling the web—you won’t have to start paying money to follow links.”
What he did end up selling ended up being a bit bungled, as first noted by Mikko Hypponen, a security researcher at the IT security company F-Secure. Specifically, the code that was flashed onscreen during the Sotheby’s auction had wonky angled brackets.
Hypponen noted in one interview that there’s no way that this flub was present in the original browser code—meaning that it’s a Berners-Lee/Sotheby’s original collab. “The NFT consists of multiple components, and the code seems to be fine everywhere else, but the video seems to have all special characters encoded,” he said. “Such code would not work and could not be compiled.”
Other developers have also suggested that the flub resulted from whatever software the auctioneers were using to pretend to type up the code during the 30-minute video.
Meanwhile, other spectators have joked about whether this tiny flub inadvertently made the NFT more valuable “These NFT things are all about ‘owning a piece of internet history,’” wrote BBC reporter Joe Tidy. “So could this ‘artifact’ actually be worth EVEN MORE now because of the cock-up?”
Arguably, $5.4 million is already way too much to pay for a picture of some freely available open-source code. On the other hand, Berners-Lee has said he plans to donate these auction proceeds to charity, so at least these obscene earnings are going somewhere worthwhile.