Cryptocurrency investors and digital collectors have deemed the original source code for the web more valuable than the first tweet but less desirable than a pixelated punk.
A “non-fungible token” representing Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the web sold for $5.4m at auction on Wednesday. The winning bidder was not immediately identified.
The auction at Sotheby’s ranks the digital artwork, named “This Changed Everything”, among the most valuable NFTs ever sold. However, the high-profile item fell tens of millions of dollars short of the high-water mark set by digital artist Beeple three months ago amid signs interest in the virtual collectibles may already be waning.
The final value exceeds the $2.9m price paid for an NFT of Jack Dorsey’s first tweet, which the Twitter co-founder auctioned off in March. But it is considerably less than the $69m a cryptocurrency investor paid for Beeple’s “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” in March.
Earlier this month, a CryptoPunk — one of the earliest series of digital collectibles — sold for $11.8m in another Sotheby’s NFT auction. Two more CryptoPunks, which resemble a graphic from an early video game, have sold for more than $7m apiece.
The British scientist’s lot comprised an archive of time-stamped files for the WorldWideWeb browser, a 30-minute animation and digital “poster” of the code, and a letter from Berners-Lee explaining the background to his invention.
Berners-Lee said in a statement that the process had “offered me the opportunity to look back in time to the moment I first sat down to write this code 30 years ago, and reflect on how far the web has come since then, and where it could go in the decades to come”.
“I am thrilled that the initiatives Rosemary and I support will benefit from the sale of this NFT,” he said.
While the web’s inventor likened the token to an autographed book, Sotheby’s had hoped collectors would value the digital item in similar terms to a scientific artefact.
Berners-Lee’s code bundle exceeded the sums paid for handwritten manuscripts by Alan Turing and Albert Einstein at past auctions of scientific memorabilia. The price matched that of an NFT artwork by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, which sold for $5.4m in April.
More than 50 bids were placed from all over the world during the week-long auction of Berners-Lee’s NFT. “The huge reception we have in response to the auction is a fitting tribute to the genius of a man who changed our world forever,” said Cassandra Hatton, global head of science and popular culture at Sotheby’s.
NFTs use blockchain technology to bring scarcity, traceability and authentication to the digital world, where media can be endlessly copied.
The technical underpinnings of the web were never patented but released for free into the public domain by Cern, the particle physics laboratory in Switzerland where Berners-Lee worked when he came up with the idea.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on digital collectibles so far this year, though activity has waned since March’s peak alongside a wider sell-off in cryptocurrencies and a series of regulatory clampdowns on bitcoin.