'Reading Rainbow' Owner Accuses LeVar Burton of "Theft and Extortion" in Lawsuit

LeVar Burton - GETTY - H 2017
Ernesto Ruscio/Getty

Eight years after LeVar Burton tweeted his intention to revive Reading Rainbow, he's now being personally sued for essentially hijacking the long-running PBS show that encourages people to read. On Friday, WNED (a public broadcaster in Buffalo, N.Y.) filed a wide-ranging lawsuit that demands among other things that Burton's company hand over administrative access to various websites and social media accounts. The lawsuit also seeks to enjoin Burton from using the Reading Rainbow catchphrase, "But you don't have to take my word for it," on his podcast, LeVar Burton Reads.

Although this is a new lawsuit, WNED and Burton's RRKidz have been in court with each other for more than a year over a 2011 licensing deal.

According to court papers, RRKidz obtained a license from WNED to use intellectual property related to Reading Rainbow, which ran on PBS between 1983 and 2006 and was hosted by Burton, an actor known for his roles as Kunta Kinte in Roots and as Geordi La Forge on Star Trek: The Next Generation

WNED's interpretation of the agreement is that the 2011 deal represented a “divide and conquer” approach to the renaissance of Reading Rainbow whereby RRKidz would be allowed to take over digital distribution of the series while the broadcaster would focus on making new episodes. Profits were to be split.

But then in 2014, Burton launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money for the show's revival and brought in $6.5 million. WNED was upset at the loss of control and further alleges that its own efforts to develop a new series were undermined when RRKidz along with The Jim Henson Co. began secretly negotiating with Netflix for a new Reading Rainbow series. In response to the allegation, RRKidz said the Netflix discussions pertained to an original concept and not Reading Rainbow.

Nevertheless, WNED informed RRKidz that the licensing agreement had been breached. After RRKidz received a formal notice of termination, Burton's company asked a New York federal judge to declare that it had fully performed under the agreement and that the licensing deal couldn't be ended. WNED submitted counterclaims including the allegation that RRKidz had tortiously interfered with its own Netflix series.

As the parties continue to wage war over the 2011 agreement, WNED has now filed a second lawsuit against Burton and his company.

This one discusses how in June, Burton launched a new podcast, Levar Burton Reads, where the actor narrates short stories. The complaint quotes what happened 48 seconds into the first episode:

Female Voice: Let's talk about...

Burton: Why I want to do a podcast?

Female Voice: Yeah, let's talk about that.

Burton: Yeah, yeah. Well here's the thing: People have asked me, um, for years and years and years, when are you going to do a Reading Rainbow for adults? And it's always been something that's on my mind so I wanted to address that, I wanted to address a Reading Rainbow for adults.

The complaint goes on to address how the media has latched on to the phrase "Reading Rainbow for adults" as the de facto slogan for the podcast and how Burton told WNYC's Brian Lehrer, "People are calling it Reading Rainbow for adults, and I can't stop them from that."

On Aug. 1, the Reading Rainbow website featured a prominent new notice, "As of August 1st, 2017 RRKidz will no longer license the Reading Rainbow brand. ReadingRainbow.com is owned and operated by WNED-Buffalo."

On the upper right-hand corner was a logo for "LeVar Burton Kids" with a link that took readers to levarburtonkids.com. WNED alleges that RRKidz was responsible for this change as well as how the "Reading Rainbow Skybrary" app on iTunes was replaced with the "LeVar Burton Kids Skybrary" app. Additionally, content on the Reading Rainbow YouTube page was removed.

"As evidenced by Mr. Burton’s conduct since he began 'teasing' the public about the return of Reading Rainbow years before his company acquired any rights to do so, Mr. Burton’s goal is to control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow’s substantial goodwill — goodwill that unquestionably belongs to WNED," states the complaint. "First, defendants tried to assert control over the brand through deception: secret negotiations with Netflix, false assertions of ownership of the RR Intellectual Property, and misleading efforts to persuade WNED’s business associates to make Mr. Burton the host of any new series. Then, defendants tried brute force: the RRKIDZ Action, through which they tied up the RR Intellectual Property while waging a war of attrition intended to extract a settlement that would loosen restrictions of their ability to exploit the RR Intellectual Property. Now that WNED has called their bluff and is prepared to take the RRKIDZ Action to trial, defendants have resorted to theft and extortion. As the RRKIDZ Action moved closer to trial, RRKidz began working with Mr. Burton’s longtime friend, John Raymonds, to secretly encumber the RR Intellectual Property as collateral for $2.5 million in loans from Raymonds Capital."

WNED is alleging that Burton's company pledged its rights under the licensing agreement to Raymonds Capital in return for money and then attempted to terminate its deal with the broadcaster. WNED, however, insists that RRKidz' rights were already lost more than a year ago.

Burton and RRKidz are now being sued for copyright infringement, conversion, cybersquatting, violations of the Lanham Act, breach of contract and interference with customer relations. 

But you don't have to take my word for it. Here's the complaint, which is notable for many reasons including an attempt to stop an actor from uttering the catchphrase he used for more than two decades. WNED argues that the slogan has become "immutably associated with Reading Rainbow" and that Burton's use in a manner not authorized by WNED causes confusion, mistake or deception as to the origins. WNED not only wants an injunction, but also profits from Burton's podcast.