Is That Legal – Christmas Flash Mobs

Coventry Carolers by moonlightbulb from Flickr

Coventry Carolers by moonlightbulb from Flickr

It’s the holiday season and with it comes a usual slew of holiday inspired flash mobs. I’ve seen videos this year of groups of bell ringers standing outside stores and carolers in shopping malls. These groups seem to have the best of intentions, but that doesn’t mean that what they’re doing is permissible.

So When is a Group probably OK?
If a group is on public property (i.e. a public sidewalk or park), not obstructing a thoroughfare or blocking the public’s access to businesses, and not making so much noise that they’re disturbing the peace or violating the city’s noise ordinance, they’re probably ok. Most flash mobs don’t last very long so by the time a scrooge complains to the police, the group will have dispersed before they show up.

'Tis the Season . . . for Shopping by Vince Alongi from Flickr

‘Tis the Season . . . for Shopping by Vince Alongi from Flickr

What about Malls?
Shopping malls are private property, including open air malls. The mall is open to the public to shop; however, they get to decide what other activities get to occur at their properties. When patrons are watching a flash mob, they’re not shopping. Some owners don’t like that. I think some malls don’t want to worry about drawing the line between permissible performances and impermissible ones so they don’t allow any of them in the mall.

Scottsdale Fashion Square has put all flash mob groups on notice that flash mobs are not allowed on their property and that we’ll be arrested for trespassing if we do a flash mob there. They have real police officers on site so that is a threat they can easily carry out. A group did a dance there in 2010 and they were stopped by police and banned from the mall for a year.

What else should you know about Flash Mobs in Malls?
Every mall has a set of rules, but they can be hard to find. They might be on an obscure wall or on the mall’s website. When Improv AZ was stopped by mall cops during the Coroner Prank #2, they gave us a list of rules on cards when they banned us from the mall for 3 months. I didn’t see the rules anywhere in the mall and I couldn’t find them on their website. It might be hard to figure out what the rules are and asking for them may arouse suspicion.

There was one Christmas flash mob in a mall that turned into a safety hazard in 2010. So many people showed up to participate in the singing of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” that there was fears that the floor would buckle. Malls also have limits on capacity set by the fire marshall that you can’t violate with your flash mob.

Some malls don’t allow videotaping, which is a common component of doing flash mobs. There’s a possibility that what you’re doing in the mall is permissible but you can’t tape it. Given that when a flash mob starts, a bunch of people are going to whip out their phones and start taping it, so the chances that a mall cop will stop you versus an unsuspecting audience member is pretty low.

Are there Copyright Issues with Singing Christmas Carols in Public?
It depends. Some holiday songs may not be in the public domain yet. A copyright holder has rights in their work, including control over where their work is performed, for 70 years after the artist dies for all works created after January 1, 1978. Fortunately, I suspect most artists would be happy that you’re promoting their work so they’re unlikely to come after you for copyright infringement even if they could.

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