The realm of intellectual property is more wide-ranging than many people realize, and individuals and businesses have been trying to push the boundaries even further over the last several years. That appears to be the case in a recently filed lawsuit initiated by a Major League Baseball (MLB) pitcher, who claims that the Houston Astros’ stealing of his catcher’s pitching signals constituted trade secret theft.
The basics of trade secrets
Trade secrets are commercially valuable pieces of information that the owner takes steps to protect from further dissemination, thereby giving it a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Oftentimes trade secrets include recipes or algorithms, but the definition is much broader than that, which is why the baseball player who initiated the lawsuit mentioned above believes that he’s justified in taking legal action in this fashion. There, the pitcher claims that pitchers, catchers, and teams develop complex signaling systems that seek to keep batters and runners guessing as to which pitch is coming next, which gives them a competitive advantage. Since these signals are traditionally kept secret, then stealing them would constitute trade secret theft, according to the lawsuit.
How the pitcher was harmed
Of course, the theft of a trade secret only warrants legal action if there’s actual harm caused. In this MLB lawsuit, the pitcher claims that he was sent to the minor league and thereafter couldn’t sign with another major league team after he suffered a devastating loss to the Astros in 2017, which he attributes to sign stealing. It’s no secret at this point that the Astros stole pitching signs during that season, and the pitcher now claims that he lost a significant amount of income and damage to his professional reputation as a result of the theft.
How will the court rule?
It’s obviously too early to tell. However, the court will have a number of interesting issues to consider. For example, can something be considered a trade secret if everyone can see it, including fans in the stands? Can a trade secret exist if people on different teams or in different businesses use the same secret just at different times and under different circumstances? We’ll have to wait to see, but one thing is for sure: the intricacies of this area of the law are going nowhere anytime soon.