People's United Bank v. PeoplesBank

People’s United Bank v. PeoplesBank (2010 WL 4877856) Decided December 1, 2010

Facts: (2010 WL 2521069)
Plaintiff, People’s United Bank (PUB), is a Connecticut based federally chartered stock savings bank. From 1980 through 2001, Plaintiff was known as “People’s Bank.” In 2008, in light of recent acquisitions in Massachusetts, PUB would like to use “People’s United Bank” in their new market. It had been using “division of People’s United Bank” in Massachusetts. PUB is the largest bank headquartered in New England.
Defendant, PeoplesBank (P), is a Massachusetts bank operating sixteen branches and thirty-five ATM locations. They have operated in Massachusetts continuously since 1885. It has used “PeoplesBank” since 2001 and is third in western Massachusetts market share for customer deposits. Defendant has spent over $1 million per year and uses its mark in all advertising.

Issue: Appeal taken on: Whether PeoplesBank (P) can obtain a preliminary injunction against People’s United Bank (PUB) to prevent PUB from using the name “People’s United Bank,” alone or as part of a logo, on exterior signs, advertising and marketing in western Massachusetts.

Holding: Preliminary injunction denied by district court is affirmed

Analysis: In trademark cases, courts have held that irreparable harm is inherent in the proof of likely success on the merits and have not required a showing of harm apart from a showing of confusion. This standard had been in question due to prior Second Circuit cases. Principles of equity are relied upon as the presumptive standard for injunctions. Although their mark is found to be descriptive, PeoplesBank has acquired secondary meaning in the four counties of western Massachusetts.
The Court then goes through the 8 factors for likelihood of confusion between “PeoplesBank” and “People’s United Bank.” The court concluded that PeoplesBank was unable to show confusion tending to cause commercial injury. Lack of proof, combined with the commonness of the term “peoples,” and other facts results in a finding that PeoplesBank has not shown a substantial likelihood of confusion.

Critique: Actual confusion of the marks can be shown through the use of expert witnesses, surveys and other evidence. However, when marks are nearly similar parties approach a limit of distinction. The marginal distinction creates a problem for courts in providing adequate remedies for parties with real harm. This case exemplifies that the type of harm suffered in literal copy may be possible even when there isn’t literal copying.

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