How to make your Flash Mob legal...

Read tips from tutors and see our students perform

Here are our students performing in a flash mob at Trinity Leeds in spring 2014. They did it as part of a specialist project, run by Pop lecturer Craig Lees – who chronicled the planning process in a series of video and blog posts for VoiceCouncil Magazine (see the links to the right, or at the bottom if you're using a smartphone).

Often organized through social media or over mobile phones,  flash mobs are designed to be a public spectacle, drawing attention to a specific cause or charity. At the “street level”, flash mobs are a great way to engage the general public, first gaining their attention with an eye catching display, then potentially offering free merchandise and flyers for your next performance. If you time your flash mob directly before a gig you could even invite your new-found fans to join you for an evening of entertainment.

The planning process needs to cover a handful of areas:

• Where is it all going to happen?

• What are we going to perform?

• Who will perform it?

• And crucially, how are we going to pull this thing off?

As well as the project management side of the event – including planning, venue confirmation, rehearsals and looking after participants – you'll need to complete some paperwork. If you want to film your flash mob, use it for further promotion of your project and publish it online, you'll have to look at the music used and the legalities around it – an area of music licensing. It’s the norm for groups to use footage for promotional purposes afterwards, so arranging licensing of the material and release forms for all the performers is a must.

Shoosmiths LLP is a major UK law firm, working with brands like Hewlett-Packard to Krispy Kreme as well as a growing number of the FTSE 250 companies. "Without obtaining the appropriate consents from the copyright holders of the music and recording that you are intending to use, you risk being on the receiving end of a copyright infringement claim and as well as potentially being liable for costs and damages" says Carol Isherwood, Shoosmiths’ specialist Music Lawyer, "you will be prevented from using the footage. An example of this is the recent copyright infringement claim against Michelle Phan. ". So that means copyright and Intellectual Property are definitely things to keep an eye on.

Many song covers on video sharing websites like YouTube are considered as ‘user generated content’ and don’t need to carry a licence. But if there’s any branded content in your video – such as your logo, or clear corporate affiliation – you’ll need to apply for a ‘synchronization licence’ from the music publisher that owns the rights to the music. This can often have a fee attached to it, so be prepared to manage your budgets carefully.

"If you capture your flash mob on video it is important to consider how content can be used once the necessary clearance is granted" says Business pathway leader, Adrian Kirkpatrick. "From a marketing stance it is important to exploit uses. You could consider how you share this material: could it be used in social marketing? Email marketing? PR? Always ask yourself how could this raise awareness of what you doing either individually or collectively and explore avenues to maximise exposure to generate a gain. "

There are two elements to be looked at for licencing/permissions: :

1) words and music, if you’re doing a straight cover:

2) sound recording, if you’re using a sample of a track:

For the LCoM project, they needed to get permission to use the words and music for ‘Something’s Got A Hold On Me’ by Etta James and ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams.

The rights are often held by a music publishing company – and you’ll have to do some research to find out who that is. Often it’s easy enough to find by looking at the song’s Wikipedia page, or by searching for a song on websites like

Rights can often be split between different record labels or publishing companies. EMI Music Publishing holds 100% of the rights to ‘Something’s Got A Hold On Me’ , and 75% of the rights to ‘Happy’ . The remaining 25% of the rights to ‘Happy’ are owned by Universal Music Publishing.

LCoM contacted the relevant music publishers to apply for a synchronization licence, and paid the appropriate fees. The publisher also needs to get approval from the songwriter, so you may have to wait until you’re given full clearance to go ahead.

If you’re embedding the video in your website, you’ll need to apply for a Performing Rights Online Licence from PRS, but not if it’s just being published on YouTube, which has its own guidance.

You can also turn to The Musicians’ Union for help and advice on publishing, copyright and ‘collecting societies’ such as PRS – they run courses and have various resources available for a healthy life as a musician.

Film credit: Unity House.



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Craig Lees’ VoiceCouncil blog

Pop lecturer and specialist project leader, Craig Lees, created a series of flash mob 'how-to' blog posts for VoiceCouncil magazine. Follow these links to view:

►   Introduction
►   Choosing a song
►   Rehearsals
►   The flash mob happens
►   Create a flash mob gig (later post)

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