For generations of kids, “Reading Rainbow” and its host, actor LeVar Burton, have been practically synonymous.
But that doesn’t mean he owns the show concept ― and a new lawsuit from a public broadcaster alleges that Burton’s recent literary ventures have violated their intellectual property rights by profiting from the “Reading Rainbow” brand. He has tried to revive the show, which ran from 1983 to 2006, over the past few years; in 2014, he launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a reboot, and in June he debuted a new podcast, “Levar Burton Reads,” which many called a “Reading Rainbow” for adults.”
For nostalgic fans of the series, Burton’s dedication to spreading “Reading Rainbow” far and wide might be a gift, but WNED, the public broadcaster in Buffalo, NY, that co-created the series, has a different perspective. WNED has been embroiled in a legal struggle with RRKidz, Burton’s company, since 2016 over distribution and development of “Reading Rainbow.” In 2011, WNED signed a deal granting RRKidz the right to distribute episodes of the show on their platform, but tried to sever the contract in 2015, claiming that Burton’s company had been violating the agreement by creating original “Reading Rainbow”-branded content for their site and attempting to negotiate with Netflix in secret.
The new complaint, filed Aug. 4, accuses Burton and RRKidz of taking advantage of the 2011 distribution deal to trade on the “Reading Rainbow” brand and occupy control over its platforms. The “LeVar Burton Reads” podcast comes in for particular scrutiny; the complaint dissects his reference to “Reading Rainbow” in the first episode, which encouraged listeners to think of the show as an adult version of the classic children’s program. “The media latched on to Mr. Burton’s use of the phrase ‘Reading Rainbow for adults,’ and it became the de facto slogan for the podcast,” the suit argues.
WNED also quibbles with Burton’s use of his old catchphrases from the PBS show, “I’ll see you next time” and “but you don’t have to take my word for it” ― which they term, respectively, the slogan and the tagline of “Reading Rainbow” ― on the podcast. His use of the phrases is, the complaint holds, “an unmistakable ― and unauthorized ― invocation of ′Reading Rainbow.’″
The public broadcaster seems unlikely to win on the public opinion front in this case. “Mr. Burton’s goal is to control and reap the benefits of ’Reading Rainbow″s substantial goodwill ― goodwill that unquestionably belongs to WNED,” the suit alleges.
But for many millennial and Gen X fans of the show, the goodwill all belongs to the man who appeared on screen and nurtured a budding love of literature. “Reading Rainbow” without LeVar Burton hardly seems like “Reading Rainbow” at all.
But the real question, whether he and his company violated the terms of a contract with WNED, will depend on much more thorny legal inquiries. In this case, simply taking Burton’s word for it isn’t even an option.