WNED Suing Reading Rainbow’s LeVar Burton

WNED, Buffalo’s PBS affiliate, is suing LeVar Burton. The lawsuit, filed days ago, accuses Burton of, among other things, copyright infringement and breach of contract. One focus of the suit is Burton’s use of his Reading Rainbow catchphrase, “But you don’t have to take my word for it,” as the signoff line on his new podcast. Attorney Paul Cambria spoke to WBEN about the case and how it could proceed. The full interview is available here.

Validity of suit

WBEN asked Mr. Cambria if the show has a valid reason to sue over this catchphrase despite the seemingly “trivial” nature of the suit. Mr. Cambria explained that the phrase is a service mark and Burton’s use of it is an interesting legal issue. “The question,” he went on, “is going to be whether or not the consumer or listener of Burton will believe that his show is in some way affiliated or connected to Reading Rainbow or WNED, which is what they control.”

Mr. Cambria told WBEN that WNED “might even have to do a survey to see whether or not people associate or confuse this catchphrase with Reading Rainbow or WNED.” He explained that these instances are fairly common. “Phrases are coined and some are indelibly associated with a certain company, brand, or whatever, and the question will be whether or not here there will be some kind of confusion,” Mr. Cambria went on. If there is confusion, Mr. Cambria said that WNED may be able to get an injunction and stop Burton from using the phrase but, given how common the phrase is, Mr. Cambria told WBEN that he is “not too sure that this is going to be an easy issue for some court to decide.”

Mr. Cambria explained that the issue is not separating LeVar Burton from Reading Rainbow, but whether or not people associate the phrase, “But you don’t have to take my word for it” too closely with Reading Rainbow for Burton to use it without capitalizing on the former show’s goodwill. “If you’re doing something that confuses someone else’s property, then there’s a remedy for that,” Mr. Cambria said.

Number of copyright suits has increased

WNED asked Mr. Cambria if the number of copyright lawsuits based on catchphrases has increased over the past years. “Absolutely,” Mr. Cambria responded. “The reason is because people now have podcasts and YouTube and all of these things that you can just do for little or no cost and, all of a sudden, be in business,” he explained.

“The infringement opportunities are greater than they were in the past where you’d have to convince a network or a radio station or a publication to carry your program,” Mr. Cambria continued. “Now, you can just have a podcast. […] There are a lot of these [lawsuits] and there will be a lot more,” he explained.

About Paul J. Cambria, Jr.

The chair of Lipsitz Green Scime Cambria’s Criminal Defense Trials and Appeals Practice Area, Mr. Cambria advises clients on criminal trials, criminal appeals, constitutional and First Amendment law, zoning and land use, antitrust, and professional licensing defense. He divides his time between the firm’s offices in Buffalo and Los Angeles.