Nickelback Beats Song-Theft Lawsuit Over ‘Rockstar’ At Appeals Court: ‘Mere Clichés’ Aren’t Infringement

A federal appeals court has rejected a copyright lawsuit that claimed Nickelback ripped off its 2006 hit “Rockstar” from an earlier song called “Rock Star,” ruling that the band can’t be sued simply for using “clichés” and “singing about being a rockstar.”

Upholding a judge’s decision last year that tossed the case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled Monday that Kirk Johnston had not even come close to proving that Nickelback infringed his earlier song when it released “Rockstar.”

Johnston, the lead singer of a Texas band called Snowblind Revival, had argued that the two songs have such similar lyrics that the lower judge should have ruled that they were “strikingly similar,” but the appeals court sharply disagreed.

“Johnston’s expert categorizes the lyrics into common themes such as ‘making lots of money,’ ‘connections to famous people,’ and ‘references to sports’,” the three-judge panel wrote. “But these broad categories are mere clichés of being a rockstar that are not unique to the rock genre. Singing about being a rockstar is not limited to Johnston.”

Ditto for other lyrics about sports, the appeals court wrote. Johnston’s song included the line “Might buy the Cowboys and that’s how I’ll spend my Sundays,” while Nickelback’s song featured the line “And a bathroom I can play baseball in.”

“These lyrics reference different sports in different contexts, and do not approach the threshold of striking similarity,” the appellate judges wrote. “No reasonable juror would think that Nickelback could have produced its lyric about baseball only by copying Johnston’s lyric about football.”

Released on Nickelback’s 2005 album, All the Right Reasons, “Rockstar” has not aged well with critics. In 2008, the Guardian said the song “makes literally no sense and is the worst thing of all time.” In 2012, Buzzfeed listed it as the second-worst song ever written, citing it as an example of “why everyone hates Nickelback so much.” But the song was a commercial hit, eventually reaching No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 2007 and ultimately spending nearly a year on the chart.

Johnston sued in May 2020, claiming the hit song had stolen “substantial portions” of his own “Rock Star,” including the “tempo, song form, melodic structure, harmonic structures and lyrical themes.”  In particular, he cited similar lyrics about rock star lifestyles, making huge amounts of money and having famous friends.

But in March 2023, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman that Johnston’s case at times “borders on the absurd.” He said any similarities between the two songs were just “outlandish stereotypes and images associated with being a huge, famous, rock star,” and that much of the rest of the songs were different.

“Stated simply, they do not sound alike,” the judge wrote. “Where both songs evoke similar themes, they are rendered dissimilar through the vivid detail of the original expression in Nickelback’s lyrics.”

On Monday, the Fifth Circuit upheld that decision – meaning that, barring an extremely unlikely trip to the U.S. Supreme Court, the case is over for good.

In the ruling, the appeals court also upheld another important finding: That there was zero evidence that frontman Chad Kroeger and the other members of the rock band ever heard Johnston’s earlier song. Such “access” is a key question in any copyright lawsuit; without showing “access”, an accuser like Johnston must prove that two songs are essentially identical.

In appealing that ruling, Johnston argued that his band Snowblind Revival and Nickelback were “moving in relatively the same circles,” or that UMG executives had potentially attended one of his band’s shows at an Austin concert venue. But the appeals court was unmoved, calling it “mere speculation.”

“Inferring access from this evidence would require ‘leaps of logic’ that are not supported by the record,” the appeals court wrote. “A jury would have to infer that the executives Johnston named actually attended Snowblind’s shows or received one of his demo CDs, and that these executives then showed the song to Nickelback. This “chain of hypothetical transmittals is insufficient …especially in the face of testimony from Nickelback members and relevant executives that they had never heard of Johnston’s song.”

Attorneys for both sides did not immediately return requests for comment on Wednesday.

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