By Wayne Harada
On one side: the children of composer Morton Stevens, pictured below, the composer of the iconic “Hawaii Five-0” theme song, expressly for the Jack Lord original, and still featured in the Alex O’Loughlin reboot.
The issue: a Stevens family lawsuit, alleging that CBS wrongfully filed a renewal registration for use of the “Five-0” theme after Stevens died and the TV reboot consequently infringes on their rights.
Stevens, an Emmy-winning creator of film and TV scores, died in 1991, about six years before a renewal copyright decision for the current Hawaii-filmed version of the procedural was in the making, according to the Hollywood Reporter and other online websites.
So the composer’s children filed a lawsuit, contending that CBS had no right to retain and use the iconic theme song. The reboot now is in the midst of completing filiming its fifth season.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who watches “Five-0,” wrote a decision regarding rights to Martin Scorcese’s “Raging Bull” film, the decision for which may have impact on whether CBS can legally continue to use the theme song.
(In the “Raging Bull” instance, Paula Petrella, whose father wrote works that ultimately became the basis of the “Bull” film, but he died before the end of the copyright term; an issue was whether Petrella’s delayed lawsuit filing should preclude her claims against MGM and 20th Century Fox, with justice Ginsburg deciding not to impose a “sue soon, or forever hold your peace” ruling for copyright lawsuits. This implies that the Stevens may bypass the fact that they were put on notice in 1997,” according to the Hollywood Reporter).
The bottom line: Under copyright law, for works created before 1978, when an author dies before the original term of a copyright grant expires, rights revert to the heirs.
The new lawsuit claims CBS has prepared a “new derivative recording of the ‘Hawaii Five-0’ theme and embodied it in the new series and the soundtrack album.”
The filing by the Stevens family seeks actual damages and profits or alternatively, statutory damages.
A CBS spokesman said “We were surprised and disappointed by the lawsuit filed by the heirs of Morton Stevens more than five years after the new ‘Hawaii Five-0’ premiered, without any prior discussion between the parties. Although we have great respect and appreciation for Mr. Stevens’ work on the original ‘Hawaii Five-0’ theme song, his heirs; claims are without merit and we will vigorously defend this case.”