LeVar Burton Dragged to Court Over ‘Reading Rainbow’

Photo by Josh Hallett/Wikipedia

MANHATTAN (CN) – LeVar Burton, the former star of “Star Trek: the Next Generation,” faces a federal complaint related to his other claim to fame: the licensing rights to the beloved PBS children’s series “Reading Rainbow.”

WNED, an affiliate of PBS based in Buffalo, New York, filed the suit Friday in Southern District of New York, accusing the iconic host of misusing various “Reading Rainbow” trademarks and licensed copyrights in his mobile app, “Skybrary by Reading Rainbow,” now being used to promote the podcast Burton unveiled in June.

Launched in May 2015, “Skybrary by Reading Rainbow” is a subscription-based digital library of children’s books, “video field trips”, and clips from the original “Reading Rainbow” series that users can access on mobile devices.

Describing itself as co-creator of “Reading Rainbow,” WNED says it owns the exclusive rights to the series and associated intellectual property, including the “Reading Rainbow” logo and the slogan “But you don’t have to take my word for it.”

WNED says new audiovisual segments in Burton’s app infringe on copyrights of the original series, including “segments in the style of the old show, recorded with Burton, recorded segments featuring Burton that are reminiscent of the old show, and video segments in the style of the old show with Burton showing the children an environment.”

Burton’s company RRKidz allegedly obtained a license from WNED in late 2011.

As WNED’s licensee, according to the complaint, RRKidz took over digital distribution of the “Reading Rainbow” series and developed of a Reading Rainbow-branded digital platform for the distribution of old and new “Reading Rainbow” content, which eventually became “Reading Rainbow Skybrary.”

WNED says it chose to terminate the license in 2015, causing “many — but not all — of the licensed rights” to revert back to the PBS affiliate station.

In August 2017, however, the complaint says Burton “purported to ‘terminate’ the license agreement” and pledged the exclusive right to distribute the “Reading Rainbow” series to nominal defendant Raymonds Capital for $2.5 million. The complaint notes that Raymonds Capital is owned by Burton’s longtime friend, John Raymonds.

RRkidz then moved the contents of the “Reading Rainbow” website at readingrainbow.com to levarburtonkids.com and rebranded the Reading Rainbow Skybrary as LeVar Burton Kids Skybrary, according to the complaint.

In addition to counts of copyright infringement, conversion, trademark violations, the 38-page complaint alleges breach of contract, bad faith and interference with customer relations.

WNED wants an injunction and for Burton and RRKidz to turn over all administrative rights to all of the social-media accounts associated with “Reading Rainbow.”

WNED’s allegation of cybersquatting accuses RRKidz of using the readingrainbow.com domain to redirect consumers to its new “copycat” site, levarburtonkids.com.

The app’s subscription currently costs $9.99 per month.

Children navigate the app’s digital library from the perspective of a hot-air balloon flying through themed islands in the sky.

The last episode of the “Reading Rainbow” series aired in 2006, after changes in federal funding for education depleted the revenue available for production of new episodes. Reruns aired until 2009.

In interviews, Burton has frequently leveled blame for the cancellation of the long-running series on the “misguided” mandates of the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act.

“The governmental policy that was the engine driving the train for funding for education for so many years, the emphasis was, under NCLB was on teaching kids and not fostering, there was no money in the budget essentially for fostering a love of reading, as crazy as that sounds,” Burton told Larry King in 2013.

In February 2010, Burton appeared during the keynote presentation at Macworld Expo 2010 and announced that was planning to bring “Reading Rainbow” back via the internet later that year.

Representatives for the actor and RRkidz Inc. did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday afternoon.

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