‘IDOLS’ BATTLE GROWS SHRILL

HIGHLIGHT: Lawyers for the TV hit and a Tampa software firm take their show to court. One contest features crooners ages 16 to 28 in a glitzy battle for fame and record contracts. Its season finale last month drew 31-million TV viewers… The other contest features Hillsborough County school kids singing songs like On Top of Old Smoky for college scholarship money. Its March finale at Busch Gardens drew dozens of parents and friends.American Idol. Reading Idols. Nobody is likely to confuse the two. But that hasn’t stopped lawyers for the Fox TV megahit and Tampa-based Electronic Learning Products Inc. from trading legal salvos over Reading Idols and whether it infringes on the American Idol brand.Electronic Learning upped the tempo last week when it filed a preemptive lawsuit in Tampa federal court.Though neither party would comment on the dispute, the seeds of war apparently were planted in February. That’s when Electronic Learning – the fledgling software company behind Tune in toReading, an innovative, karaoke-style program that helps low-achieving students improve their reading skills – filed an application to trademark the “Reading Idols” name. The firm recently had begun sponsoring contests under that name as a reward for area students whose schools used the software.FremantleMedia North America Inc., the Burbank, Calif., entertainment giant that trademarked the phrase “American Idol” in 2003, saw the filing as a threat. In a June 6 letter, it gave Electronic Learning until June 14 to drop the Reading Idols name and trademark bid, or face litigation. Its argument: that the public naturally, and incorrectly, would assume that American Idol sponsored or was otherwise connected to Reading Idols.Indeed, legitimate licensees pay a hefty bounty to tapAmerican Idol’s brand magic. Last year, for example, Kraft Foods introduced an Idol-like singing contest centered on its classic Oscar Mayer hot dog jingles. American Idol stars participated in a kick-off ceremony, the grand prize was a trip to the American Idol finale show, and American Idol’s logo appeared on millions of hot dog packages.But instead of waving a white flag last week, Electronic Learning filed suit, asking a federal judge to make FremantleMedia retreat.It’s not the first time FremantleMedia tried to enforce the American Idol trademark. Last year, for example, it sued Highend Holdings LLC, a company out of St. Petersburg and Odessa, for sponsoring exotic-dancer contests under the name America‘s Naked Idol and attempting to trademark it.Was American Idol the inspiration for Reading Idols? Electronic Learning’s lawsuit doesn’t say. But a company spokeswoman may have given the secret away in a recent interview with TampaBaysMediaTalk.com. After the students performed at Busch Gardens in March, she said, audience members were invited to vote for their favorite performer at ReadingIdols.com. “Similar,” she said, “to some television shows that you might watch.”Scott Barancik can be reached at barancik@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.FAST FACTSReading Idols’ roots– In 1994, Electronic Learning Products started selling SingingCoach, which teaches singers to sing on pitch and in rhythm.– A mother of a student said her child’s reading comprehension improved because of the product.– Since the beginning of this school year, Tune in toReading software has been installed in more than 60 classrooms throughout Florida. The software assesses students’ reading levels, then assigns them songs.– As a reward for students whose schools use the software, Electronic Learning sponsors contests under the Reading Idols name. Hillsborough students recently competed in the contest, with college scholarships as prizes.

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