District Judge Dismisses Years-Old Copyright Lawsuit Over Nickelback’s ‘Rockstar’

Nickelback Rock Star
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Nickelback Rock Star
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Photo Credit: Thakingdome / CC by 3.0

A federal judge has officially dismissed with prejudice a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against Nickelback in 2020 over “Rockstar.”

District Judge Robert Pitman just recently signed off on a final judgement in the years-old case, after Magistrate Judge Susan Hightower in February formally recommended that the complaint be dismissed with prejudice. In the original action – levied against the Alberta-based rock group’s members, WMG’s Roadrunner Records, and others – one Kirk Johnston accused Nickelback of infringing upon his own “Rock Star” effort in the popular 2005 track of the same name.

The lead singer of an act called Snowblind Revival, Johnston communicated in the complaint that he and his bandmembers had created “Rock Star” in 2001. Snowblind is said to have submitted the track (along with different songs) “to a broad variety of labels,” execs from which purportedly offered “very positive” feedback about “Rock Star” in particular.

Meanwhile, the ostensibly far-reaching marketing undertaking afforded Nickelback “direct access” to Snowblind’s “Rock Star,” Johnston alleged in the initial action. Additionally, the plaintiff artist indicated that Nickelback had lifted a “substantial” amount of the older track without permission to create the newer song, referring specifically to “portions of the tempo, song form, melodic structure, harmonic structures, and lyrical themes.”

Predictably, Nickelback sought to dismiss the suit and pushed back against each of the allegations at hand (“the two songs sound nothing alike”), including by scrutinizing the details of Snowblind’s claimed major-label meetings and questioning how its members would have actually accessed the sample CD containing “Rock Star.”

And after the push for an outright dismissal failed to bring about the desired result, Nickelback submitted a motion for summary judgement on Johnston’s infringement claim. In recommending that this motion be approved last month, the aforementioned Judge Hightower determined the plaintiff had “presented no probative evidence” that Nickelback had received “a reasonable opportunity to hear” his allegedly ripped-off song.

“Viewed in the light most favorable to him, Johnston’s evidence at most demonstrates a ‘bare possibility of access,’” Judge Hightower drove home. “Johnston offers no significantly probative evidence that any of Defendants’ executives actually heard Plaintiff’s Work, much less shared it with Nickelback.”

Furthermore, after a thorough “side-by-side examination of the works,” the presiding judge, “drawing inferences in a manner most favorable to Johnston,” found that “the evidence does not establish that the songs are strikingly similar.”

“As an ‘ordinary listener,’ the Court concludes that a layman would not consider the songs or even their ‘hooks’ to be strikingly similar,” Judge Hightower penned. “Stated simply, they do not sound alike.” Regarding alleged similarities (supported by the testimony of a musicologist brought in by the plaintiff) between the songs’ lyrics, the judge described the “assertion that some of the lyrics in the two songs are substantially similar” as bordering “on the absurd.”

In agreeing with Judge Hightower’s recommendation and dismissing the action, Judge Pitman gave each side 30 days to file a motion seeking attorneys’ fees or attempting to amend his final judgement.