The role of patents in 51Degrees


10/19/2020 5:00 PM

Patent 51Degrees News

51Degrees has grown to become a respected commercial open source business and although we operate a freemium business model, we choose to protect our inventions.

A lot of people talk about leadership and innovation, but we like to shout about it. One way we do that is by choosing to patent our technologies, which we believe demonstrates that 51Degrees is an innovation-led company more than any marketing accolade or decorative glassware ever could.

Since 2011 we have grown to become a respected commercial open source business, but although we operate a freemium business model, we chose to protect our inventions. These inventions can start life as an “aha moment”, but they are often the result of years of hard work. We decided that it was critical we patent our technologies to protect our business in order to ensure we can continue to produce breakthrough after breakthrough.


Our first patent was granted in 2013 and we have been granted multiple patents for our key device detection technologies.

These patents, which cover two different evolutions of 51Degrees’ original way of quickly and accurately identifying a device when it accesses a website, have been examined by the USPTO and UK Intellectual Property Office. Both have decided that what 51Degrees has invented is sufficiently different from anything invented before.

Why we do it

As an open source company, patenting our technologies wasn’t something we had to do. It was, however, something we chose to do to protect our business, to instil confidence in our customers and to provide a barrier that competitors would need to overcome in order to prevent copying.

Historically, software innovations have been covered by a type of intellectual property known as ‘Trade Secrets’. This is a method by which you simply don’t make the “how” your product works available. For example, if you’ve invented a way to turn lead into gold, you could apply for a patent or you could just not make your method known.

This method of IP has its benefits. It does not require an application, nor the costs involved with the lengthy process. Perhaps obviously, it is also more secret than any publicly available patents or copyrights.


However, a ‘trade secret’ doesn’t showcase innovation, nor would it offer protection for both our business and our customers. This is why we have chosen to embed the patent application process firmly into our business model.

How we do it

The way our technologies are protected is multi-layered. We’re protecting both the way in which the server works and the way in which we build our unique database of device properties. This is a middle ground between ownership and freedom. By protecting the way in which it is created, and the data file itself, we can happily give away the data file while blocking our competitors from creating workalike solutions.

By licencing our source code under the European Union Public Licence, anyone can use the source code and incorporate much of the intellectual property into their own solutions. All they need to do is acknowledge 51Degrees’ contribution in their own licenses and end-user agreement.


Simply, we’re striking a balance between retaining the accreditation right to the invention and controlling the implementation.

The Result

We’re already covered some of the many benefits of patenting, and why it’s something we chose to do. Perhaps most importantly, however, it’s motivational for our employees. Nothing says “I’m an innovative engineer” than having your name on a patent and it’s something we value more than any type of marketing award; it’s peer-recognition, of which a patent is the ultimate accolade.

By embedding patenting into our business model, 51Degrees can continue to innovate in the device detection space bringing new techniques and approaches to what is a complex computing problem.