Soak up this glorious news because it may be the best you’ll hear all week: LeVar Burton is no longer being sued for using his famous Reading Rainbow catchphrase, “but you don’t have to take my word for it,” on his podcast, LeVar Burton Reads.
“All settled, but you don’t have to take my word for it,” Burton told me when I spoke to him recently at a New York Comic Con event he did with Neil deGrasse Tyson for the Audible book of Andy Weir’s Artemis. “It’s all good. It’s all good. I can say it.”
You may remember the news in early August of a strongly worded lawsuit filed by WNED, the PBS affiliate in Buffalo, New York, that owns the Reading Rainbow brand, against Burton and his digital reading company RRKidz (recently renamed LeVar Burton Kids), for “theft and extortion” regarding a series of alleged trademark violations — including promoting his podcast as “a Reading Rainbow for adults” and his repeated use of a catchphrase he used on-air for over 20 years but didn’t technically own.
Well, I didn’t take Burton’s word for it: I double-checked the legal history, and called WNED. According to a statement from WNED, as well as documents filed with the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of New York on August 28, just as Burton said, both sides have reached a settlement and WNED has withdrawn its suit.
Burton credits the turn of events to the outcry that arose among fans when news of the lawsuit first broke, particularly around WNED’s assertion that Burton’s contributions to RR and the value of RR could be separated. (The exact language: “Mr. Burton’s goal is to control and reap the benefits of Reading Rainbow’s substantial goodwill — goodwill that unquestionably belongs to WNED.”) As the public made their feelings known, Burton said, the company changed their minds: ”There was an amazing outpouring of love and support of fans. It was very heartwarming. I didn’t have to say anything. I did not make a comment. I was advised not to comment, and as difficult as that was for me, it was nice to have people come to my defense.”
The full story is a little more complicated. As WNED wrote in its statement, while encouraging everyone to read the full court documents: “It is important to note that the basis of this case is about protecting the integrity of the ‘Reading Rainbow’ brand and its future, not just about a catchphrase.” The dispute between WNED and Burton stems back to a 2011 licensing agreement for Reading Rainbow “intellectual property” that was meant to set up a “divide and conquer” system for reviving the brand. Burton’s RRKidz would take over digital development, like an iPad app and an online library for elementary schools. WNED would be in charge of figuring out how to revive the filmed show; if that ever happened they’d split profits with Burton 50-50. Then, WNED claims, Burton crossed a line by running a 2014 Kickstarter campaign to revive the show — which raised $6.5 million and led to alleged secret negotiations with Netflix about a new RR series without WNED’s involvement. Soon after, WNED started restricting RRKidz’s license, upon which RRKidz sued WNED. The lawsuit claims that Burton persisted in acting as if there were no restrictions, including hijacking the Reading Rainbow website to redirect traffic to his own endeavors, and leading the public to believe he still represented the brand via his podcast, even after the licensing agreement was terminated. (Burton’s timeline for when that termination happened is vastly different than WNED’s.)
Whatever the terms of the settlement, they’re confidential, according to WNED’s statement. RRKidz is no longer a licensee of the RR brand, and a Google search for rrkidz.com goes directly to the website for LeVar Burton Kids. WNED’s statement says it’s “working on the next chapter of Reading Rainbow,” and wishes luck to RRKidz (which, again, no longer exists).
“Here’s what I’m allowed to say,” Burton told me. “WNED and I have settled all of our differences and I wish them well, and I look forward to seeing what they do with the brand next. I was the brand ambassador and the steward for 23 years and I’m really proud of my time with the brand.”