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MONSTER OF A BATTLE TO BE WAGED OVER BARNEY'S SONG

Toddlers, beware! Barney the dinosaur's trademark song "I Love You" may have to be changed to "I Sue You," with this new refrain: "I sue you, you sue me, we're an unhappy fam-i-ly. . . ."

A legal battle has been joined over who owns the rights to "I Love You," a piece of melodic treacle sung to the tune of "This Old Man."The fate of this ditty for the nursery set is being argued by very adult attorneys in the skyscraper offices of three of Seattle's most prominent law firms - Davis Wright Tremaine, Miller Nash and Preston Gates & Ellis.

The legal battle is scheduled to be heard in U.S. District Court in Seattle Sept. 12, although negotiations are under way to settle out of court.

What is not in dispute is that Lee Bernstein, a homemaker and mother of two in Indiana, came up with the "I Love You" lyrics. (Rights to the melody of "This Old Man" are in the public domain and can be used by anyone.)

Not in dispute either is that Bernstein allowed the lyrics to be included in a collection of such songs in a book called "Piggyback Songs," published in 1983 by Warren Publishing House Inc. of Everett, Wash. Bernstein received in return a copy of the book, which retails for $6.95.

Beyond that, everything is in dispute, subject to claims and counterclaims by the parties involved and their attorneys.

Warren Publishing, represented by James Donohue of Miller Nash, claims Bernstein signed away her rights to "I Love You" when she agreed to its publication in "Piggyback Songs."

Bernstein, represented by Paul Lawrence of Preston Gates & Ellis (as well as a New York attorney), claims she granted Warren only one-time use of "I Love You."

And Barney's owners at the Lyons Group in Richardson, Texas, represented by Stuart Dunwoody of Davis Wright, claim the firm paid Bernstein for the rights to use "I Love You" in Barney videos and shows. This occurred after an extensive, but unsuccessful, search for a copyright on the catchy lyric, first heard in a Gymboree class attended by one of the children of a Barney co-creator.

Dunwoody says Bernstein initially received $7,500, plus payments of $2,000 "every several years." There remains unresolved litigation over whether that compensation is sufficient in light of the vast sums Barney has earned for the Lyons Group, including an estimated $50 million in licensing fees alone.

The Warren lawsuit over copyright infringement was filed a year ago, but escaped notice until recently when Barney stopped singing "I Love You."

No court order prohibits the magenta dino from crooning his trademark song, and his golly-gee rendition can still be heard in TV reruns of "Barney and Friends" on PBS. But Barney's producers dropped "I Love You" from a recent live show at Radio City Music Hall and an NBC-TV special last weekend - a move also intended to give those shows a separate identity.

The lesson in all this, girls and boys, is that big bucks often means big lawyers in big offices. And that often means everybody starts singing a different tune.