Web source code NFT sold for US$5.4 million contained a serious error

Tim Berners-Lee has defended the auction, saying it aligned with the values of the internet.
Tim Berners-Lee has defended the auction, saying it aligned with the values of the internet Photo credit: Supplied / Getty Images

A non-fungible token (NFT) of the code that created the World Wide Web sold for US$5.4 million last week - but it contains a serious error not present in the original code.

The new owner paid web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee the multi-million dollar sum via the famed Sotheby's auction house.

The single NFT lot, titled 'This Changed Everything',  included original archived date and time-stamped files with nearly 10,000 lines of code, an animated visualisation of the code being written and a letter from Berners-Lee reflecting on the process.

But Mikko Hypponen, a Finnish security researcher, identified a serious issue with the code in the visualisation that would have prevented it from being compiled and run.

Berners-Lee defended the sale in an interview with The Guardian before the auction, saying it "totally aligned with the values of the web".

"The web is just as free and just as open as it always was. I'm not selling the web - you won't have to start paying money to follow links," he said.

"I'm not even selling the source code. I'm selling a picture that I made, with a Python programme that I wrote myself, of what the source code would look like if it was stuck on the wall and signed by me."

Celebrities, both online and real-word, have been jumping on the NFT bandwagon in 2021.

Famous internet memes like 'Charlie bit my finger', 'disaster girl' and 'Leave Britney alone' have all been sold as NFTs.

And in the last two weeks tennis star Andy Murray and reality television star and convicted attempted-murderer Joe Exotic have announced their intention to sell works on the blockchain too.

In early June a digital artwork, CryptoPunk #7523, a rare pixel-art character, sold at Sotheby's for US$11.8 million. That followed a Christie's auction in March at which American artist Beeple sold a digital collage for US$69.3 million

Ultimately, as both Berners-Lee and then Hypponen pointed out in a subsequent tweet, the mistake in the web source code doesn't really matter. 

Whomever bought the NFT package doesn't actually own the code, but the digital representation of it that now exists on the blockchain - and that's worth what the market is prepared to pay for it, said Cassandra Hatton, vice president global head of science and popular culture at Sotheby's.

"Sir Tim's invention created a new world, democratising the sharing of information, creating new ways of thinking and interacting, and staying connected to one another," she said.

"We have placed it in a public forum, we have sold it at basically no reserve and we let the market decide what the value is going to be. There have been multiple bidders who have all agreed that it's valuable."