Pharrell, Happy and a Creative Commons copyright license

May 20th 2014 was the ‘International Day of Happiness’, a fundraising effort led by the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund and very publicly supported by Pharrell Williams.

By way of contribution, Williams shared his recording of ‘Happy’ under the Creative Commons licensing model and encouraged fans to make a synced video to accompany the track. This appears to have been very successful for both Williams and CERF, with thousands of sync videos being created, all of which contributed to the impact of the 24hoursofhappy mashup. Williams message to fans included encouragement for those making and enjoying the videos to make a donation to the fund – a request that no doubt travelled further thanks to Williams involvement than would have been the case had the UN decided to promote a similar event without his support, perhaps licensing their own version of the piece.

Releasing a popular piece under an open licensing agreement highlights a number of interesting copyright scenarios, and also sets a new agenda for artists in making better use of the Creative Commons licensing model to encourage legal use of original materials. Williams might be the first of many to begin contributing to the Wikimedia Commons collection of freely re-usable materials.

Williams’ Version Versus Others

Where audio is concerned, the artist, publisher and label all have a copyright interest in the piece. Each of the parties with a copyright interest must grant their permission for the use of the piece. So in the case of Williams’ version of Happy, we can assume that the record label and publisher must also have agreed to the new licensing. Their permission only applies to one recording – the version from the Wikmedia site. The same license does not apply to the one you get from iTunes, Google Play or some other media store. Because these originate from a different source and are sold under different licensing terms, the license does not apply.

What Williams’ Creative Commons License Permits You To Do

Williams chose the Attribution Share Alike license (also referred to as CC BY-SA). He chose this license with a specific objective: to encourage and legally enable the production of essentially the same audio output with a new visual companion – an synced video, for which suitable licensing is normally permitted. This was reinforced to fans with his own suggestions for how to use the media.

The CC BY-SA Creative Commons License allows for the following:

  • you can remix
  • you can share your remix

In copyright terms, remixing is essentially building a derivative work from an original piece. Remixing might take many forms, but since Williams’ chose to release just the audio limited results can be expected, most of which will conform to the idea of a fan-made video using the audio track in its original form. However, with the opportunity to remix Williams’ has also granted permission for anyone wishing to create a new version of the recording the opportunity to do so – sampling, adjusting, re-sequencing are all permitted meaning that the result could be very different from the original piece. Remember that the remix permission only extends to the piece that has been shared under the license and would not be permitted for any other recording of the same piece (a live performance, for example).

What Williams’ Creative Commons License Requires Of You

In the context of the CERF appeal, most will not realise that the license that Williams chose does have some requirements. All Creative Commons licenses have very clear and specific terms of use and complying with them is part of the key to the CC model success. In this case, the CC BY-SA license requires this:

  • you must attribute the owner via the license
  • you must share your own media under the same license

Any CC license, just like any other copyright permission, requires attribution and each CC license will confirm the form that such an attribution must take. Even of the materials were in the public domain where licensing and attribution is not required, it still represents good practice to acknowledge the creator.

The final license point is significant – in sharing an original piece through a CC license, you are granting permission for another to remix and share again. The expectation of the CC licensing model is that the sentiment in which the original is shared is also replicated by anyone who reworks the piece. Perhaps not a concern for most, but worth keeping in mind that your media may be transformed or remixed under this license in a manner than you might not either anticipate or agree with.

UPDATE: Since posting this article, the file I linked to has been removed from WikiMedia for a copyright violation. It  would appear that the original share was not made by Pharrell or the producer / composer / owner.  Whilst Pharrell has previously indicated that he would encourage individuals to participate in a charitable activity in order to support a good cause, so far as I can tell, there is no clear permission granted to anyone else to use the piece for anything other than the cause first indicated (that of the CERF appeal). Considering using the piece for your own production? Proceed with caution.

4 Responses

  1. Emma July 25, 2014 / 23:07

    Hi Chris, I’m new at this. I have created a video for our non-profit organization (I’m a volunteer) and I would like to use Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy”. I have an iTunes version (which I purchased personally) which according to your article I cannot use. Do you have the link to the WikiMedia site (I can’t find it).

    Any assistance is appreciated.


    • Chris August 5, 2014 / 19:25

      Hi Emma – I hope you found this post informative! You are correct that you may not use your iTunes version of the piece. If you read the iTunes license terms you will see that just like DVDs purchased for home consumption, these may not be used for public performance or business purposes. What you really need to do is obtain permission to use the piece either direct from the copyright owners, or via another licensing scheme. Licensors and licensing schemes will vary depending on your geographic location. Good luck with your video!

  2. Christine Sutherland December 29, 2015 / 00:16

    Hi trying to find way of formally applying for permission to use song, most informative site found so far! Any further links? Thanks

    • Chris January 1, 2016 / 17:29

      Hi Christine – I’m pleased you found the article useful.

      Happy by Pharrell Williams is released through Columbia Records, a subsidiary of Sony Music. You can apply for usage licenses via the Sony Music Licensing website, Some additional licensing information is included in the ‘Licensing 101’ section – look for the link at the foot of the left menu.

      Licensing from major labels could be quite costly – you may find more cost effective music licensing options for your needs with a different service, albeit without the use of the familiar ‘Happy’ anthem. A website like SoundCloud ( is a good starting point.

      One final suggestion – if you have the time and are prepared to allow for some creative input, you might want to approach a local college or university and invite a music student to compose something suitable (and unique) for you!

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