ST. PETERSBURG — When a company with close ties to the Tampa Bay Rays announced plans for an innovative autograph-signing business last month, local businessman Tom Waters couldn't believe it.
The reason? He and a partner came up with the idea first, according to a lawsuit filed this week in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.
The lawsuit says Waters discussed his plan and technology with Rays official Brian Auld. Waters and Auld signed a confidentiality agreement, according to the lawsuit.
But after negotiations with Rays officials broke down, "they went out and did it on their own," Waters said in an interview Wednesday.
The lawsuit is an early problem for Egraphs, a company led by Auld and his brother David that debuted last month with much fanfare. Egraphs is marketing personalized, digital autographs — a kind of online version of the time-honored shoebox full of baseball cards.
So if you want a nice photo of David Price of the Rays or David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, you can select the image, which will come along with a digitally added, authenticated signature, and possibly a personal message. The images also can be sent via email so fans can display them on their phones or tablet devices. They cost about $50.
Auld, the Rays vice president for business operations, was credited with coming up with the idea with help from his brother. Former Rays outfielder Gabe Kapler is Egraphs' director of business development and Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg is an investor.
But the lawsuit says that Waters and his partner, Robert Barrett, already had been discussing such a plan, and that Auld was part of those discussions. Attached to the lawsuit is what appears to be a confidentiality agreement signed by Auld, and emails back and forth.
In one email purportedly from Auld, he dissuades Waters from taking the idea directly to Major League Baseball, but suggests some other ideas for working with the Rays.
"For example, I think we can line up a digital signature session for one of our star players through Twitter. We could prove that there's a market for this product and possibly generate some more publicity," he says.
Egraphs officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Rays spokesman Rick Vaughn said the Rays don't comment on ongoing legal matters.
The lawsuit accuses team officials of misleading the partners and "misappropriating" their technology and ideas. It asks the court to stop the defendants from using the company's techniques, and also seeks unspecified damages.
Waters said he and Barrett developed the idea after Waters wanted a way to sign ebooks he had written. Waters said he works in the intelligence field, including previously working for the CIA.
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Curtis Krueger can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8232. Follow him on Twitter at @ckruegertimes.