Now Williams, a popular recording artist, is threatening to take legal action for the use of his song.
On Monday, his attorney Howard King issued a cease-and-desist letter to Trump, saying the use of “Happy” constituted copyright infringement and a trademark violation.
“On the day of the mass murder of 11 human beings at the hands of a deranged ‘nationalist,’ you played his song ‘Happy’ to a crowd at a political event in Indiana,” the letter stated. “There was nothing ‘happy’ about the tragedy inflicted upon our country on Saturday and no permission was granted for your use of this song for this purpose.”
The letter indicated Williams’s cease-and-desist would apply to all of his songs, not just “Happy.”
“Pharrell has not, and will not, grant you permission to publicly perform or otherwise broadcast or disseminate any of his music,” the letter stated.
It is unclear who chose the music for Saturday’s event in Indiana. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday morning.
The Indiana event was technically a National FFA Organization convention, not one of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rallies. However, it often had the feeling of a political rally, starting with an introduction by Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
Throughout his speech to the FFA convention, Trump praised several of his administration’s policy decisions and randomly took verbal detours to sling barbs at some of his political rivals, as The Washington Post reported then:
After pleading for peace and harmony, Trump seemingly couldn’t resist reverting to his favorite political insults. He criticized the trade deals of past presidents and boasted about his actions on ethanol. Trump attacked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and her claim to Native American heritage, speculating she might be “out” of consideration for president.
“Turned out that I had more Indian blood in me than she has,” Trump said. “What a sad event. And I have none, so you know.”
As the crowd of students laughed, Trump shrugged: “We can’t resist. Can we resist?”
Though Trump briefly considered canceling a political rally in Illinois taking place after the FFA convention, he ultimately decided to keep it.
“These are bad people. You can’t allow them to dominate what we do,” Trump said Saturday, referring to perpetrators of attacks such as the one on the Pittsburgh synagogue. “So, I’ll go. Not that I want to go, but I think that I actually, in reverse, have an obligation to go.”
John Cougar Mellencamp, Tom Petty and Sting all objected to then-Gov. George W. Bush (R-Tex.) using their songs in his 2000 presidential campaign (Sting also objected to Al Gore using a song), Fivethirtyeight reported. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had a particularly bad run in 2008, receiving complaints from Mellencamp, Van Halen, Heart, Bon Jovi, the Foo Fighters and ABBA before eventually being sued by Jackson Browne. During that same election, Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave) called out then Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for using “Hold On, I’m Coming.” Four years later, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (R) found himself in the crosshairs for using songs by the Silversun Pickups, K’naan, Twisted Sister and Survivor.
That said, musicians protesting the use of their songs at campaign rallies often have limited legal recourse, as usually campaigns or venues obtain a public performance license from music rights organizations such as the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) or BMI.
“As a general rule, a campaign should be aware that, in most cases, the more closely a song is tied to the ‘image’ or message of the campaign, the more likely it is that the recording artist or songwriter of the song could object to the song’s usage in the campaign,” ASCAP states.
The group recommends campaigns request permission from artists, even if they have a public performance license, to avoid possible claims.
Representatives and an attorney for Williams did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday morning.
Seung Min Kim contributed to this report.