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Is a Singing Flash Mob Legal?


All performers can learn from these students’ legal lessons – and eventual triumph.

Several months ago students at Leeds College of Music staged a quality flash mob, performing a mash-up of ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams and ‘Something’s Got A Hold On Me’ by Etta James.

They thought they had ticked all the boxes: they had obtained permission from the College and the venue – and they choose songs that had been freely shared on YouTube.

That last point was the issue.

Many song covers on video sharing websites like YouTube are considered as ‘user generated content’ and don’t need to carry a licence.

However, since these students represented an institution rather than a private group or individual, they needed licensing that would allow them to release their video on YouTube.

Be careful: if there’s any branded content in your video – such as your logo, or a clear corporate affiliation – you’ll need to apply for a ‘synchronization licence’ from the music publisher that owns the rights to the music.

“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.”

Adrian Kirkpatrick at Leeds points out the benefits that can emerge from obtaining permissions: “It is important to exploit uses. You could consider how you share this material: could it be used in social marketing? Email marketing? PR?”

How to Do Your Research

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

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 www.musicnotes.com

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.

The End of the Story

The Students at Leeds eventually received their permission – and finally were able to post the video of their flashmob! (see the video above).

See Craig Lees’ articles on preparing a Flash Mob.