Back in the day, baseball was said to be “a game of inches.” Today it’s largely driven by statistical data, such as the length of home runs, bat speeds and the velocity of pitches. Over the last decade or so, in fact, fans have grown accustomed to knowing how fast the last pitch was. Now, the origins of the pitch-tracking technology used by Major League Baseball (MLB) has been questioned in a patent infringement lawsuit filed by SMT, parent of Sportsvision, creators of the pitch-tracking system Pitchf/x.
The Pitch-Tracking Lawsuit
At the start of the 2017 season, MLB began using a new pitch-tracking system which it claims was built in-house. The enhanced system is part of a larger player-tracking and data-collecting initiative, Statcast. In 2006, however, Sportsvision signed a contract with MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM) to create the pitch-tracking system Pitchf/x which was installed in every major league park by 2008.
The system uses cameras to track the movement, spin, and velocity of pitches. Under the terms of the deal, Sportsvision has been maintaining the pitch-tracking system in exchange for a portion of the revenue generated from the sales of pitch data to broadcasters. MLBAM subsequently renewed Sportsvision’s contract several times including the most recent option which runs through 2019. In short, the lawsuit alleges that MLBAM violated the contract with Sportsvision, infringed on Sportsvision’s patent and misappropriated its trade secrets.
SMT claims MLBAM’s current pitch-tracking system was partially copied from Pitchf/x and that the company entered into agreements with third parties to build system components similar to those originally designed by Sportsvision. SMT also alleges MLBAM used inside information to develop its technology that was stolen by a former Sportvision executive who left the company soon after it was acquired by SMT to take a position with MLBAM.
The Bottom Line
In sum, the lawsuit claims SMT’s pitch-tracking patent grants them exclusive ownership of any form of MLBAM pitch-tracking. It is worth noting the difference between Pitchf/x which relies on cameras and the system which uses both doppler radar and camera to track pitch velocity.
Thus, the strength of Sportsvision’s patent infringement claim is unclear given the distinction between the two pitch-tracking technologies.
Moreover, it is uncertain whether Sportvision can prove that the former company executive pilfered trade secrets regarding pitch-tracking technology and provided them to MLBAM. While it remains to be seen if SMT will prevail, this case is a reminder that pursuing and defending patent infringement claims requires the advice and guidance of experienced intellectual property attorneys.