When is a Wedding Dress Designer a Horse?

When she gives her employer broad rights to use her name even after her employment ends. 

Of course, of course. 

This may sound like a bad (or completely nonsensical) Mr. Ed joke, but allow me to explain. Here is the story of renowned wedding dress designer Hayley Paige Gutman, who recently announced she will henceforth be known as Cheval (aka “horse” in French). Why? Because, as a result of an agreement with her former employer, she no longer owns the Instagram account she created and which bears her name. 

This case is particularly interesting to me because (1) it shows how existing laws — here, contract and the work-for-hire doctrine — are applied to new platforms and novel situations, and (2) the Court went to great lengths in an attempt at resolution, but ultimately, simply went back to existing laws to reach a decision. 

Let’s begin with the facts: In 2011, Gutman entered into an employment agreement with a company named JLM Couture, which designs and manufactures luxury bridal gowns. The agreement stated Gutman would neither compete with her employer nor use her name in connection with wedding dresses and bridal items during its term and for two years after its termination. Gutman also agreed that JLM would own everything she created in connection with her employment and could trademark her name — some pretty broad rights. In exchange, JLM promised to invest money into the “Hayley Paige” brand and pay Gutman a salary and royalties. Of course, this being the modern age, a vital marketing element for the venture was the Instagram account @misshayleypage that Gutman created shortly after entering into the contract and which was used to promote the dresses she designed for JLM. 

Everything was fine — at least, from a legal standpoint — until 2019 or 2020, when negotiations over a new contract broke down. Gutman locked JLM out of the Instagram account and began using it to promote non-JLM products. JLM sued Gutman for, among other things, breaching her agreement by taking over the account; JLM also sought to prevent Gutman from using the @misshayleypage Instagram unless approved by JLM. The lower court agreed with JLM.

Gutman appealed and the Appellate Court found the lower Court wrong to restrain Gutman without first deciding whether JLM could show it owned the social media accounts and sent the case back to the lower Court to figure that out. 

Once there, Gutman argued this question was answered by the fact that she created the Instagram account as a personal account. The lower Court was not convinced. It said that the issue needed to be resolved by looking at: (1) how the Instagram account was described to the public; (2) how it was used; and (3) if JLM employees accessed it. Based on this, the Court held that JLM was likely to succeed on its claim that it owns the Instagram account or, at least, show it had superior rights to the account because it linked to JLM websites and was regularly used to promote JLM’s business and communicate with its customers.

The Court also noted that, under her contract with JLM, Gutman agreed that anything she developed in connection with her employment belonged to JLM. To me, it seems like the Court could have saved itself a lot of time by starting there. In my view, there was no need to dissect the use of the Instagram account in order to determine ownership just as there would have been no need to debate ownership of, say, a printed JLM catalog featuring a dress designed by Gutman. The employment agreement covered all materials related to the Hayley Paige brand regardless of media type or who initiated its creation.

As a result, the “Hayley Paige” brand and Instagram account continue to be owned by JLM, and Gutman is operating as Cheval. I’m really curious to see whether the @misshayleypaige followers will follow her Cheval Instagram and whether she will be able to monetize this new persona. Will the answer be yay or… neigh?

Sorry, it had to happen.