The heirs of Morton Stevens, the composer for the original Hawaii Five-0’s iconic, Emmy-winning theme song, are suing CBS for copyright infringement. The network used the song in a reboot of the series, which premiered in 2010 and continues to air today.

Stevens’ heirs allege that CBS wrongfully filed a renewal registration after the composer died in 1991—six years before the renewal copyright term for the theme song was commenced in 1997. Under copyright law, for works created before 1978, when the author dies before the original term of a copyright grant expires, rights in the work revert to the author’s heirs. Hawaii Five-0 premiered in 1968.

Although Stevens’ heirs have waited almost twenty years since CBS’s renewal registration in 1997, the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. might allow the lawsuit to go forward. In that case, the heir to the author of works written in 1963 that became the basis of Raging Bull (a 1980 Martin Scorsese movie) sued MGM for copyright infringement. Although the heir was aware of the movie, she did not bring her lawsuit until 2009.

Justice Ginsburg wrote for the majority in holding that the doctrine of laches (an equitable defense that bars a plaintiff who unreasonably delays in bringing a claim) cannot be invoked to prevent a claim for damages brought within the three-year window established by the Copyright Act. The decision turned on a distinction between damages (legal relief) and injunctions (equitable relief); because laches is an equitable doctrine, it cannot be used to bar an action for legal relief. Still, the Court held that in extraordinary circumstances, laches may—at the very outset of the litigation—curtail equitable relief, such as an injunction. For an in-depth analysis of the Court’s opinion, click here.

Stevens’ heirs are seeking actual damages and profits (or, alternatively, statutory damages) and injunctive relief. And because of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Raging Bull case, their lawsuit will likely go forward.

Morgan Morrison

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