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Three Strikes…Tax on Cloud Computing Out in Michigan?

If the Department of Treasury (Treasury) was hoping that the Michigan courts would simply overlook the previous two cloud computing losses this year in Thomson Reuters (previously covered here) and Auto-Owners (discussed here), they appear to have been mistaken.  Last Wednesday’s Court of Claims opinion in Rehmann Robson & Co. v. Department of Treasury marked the third Michigan decision this year to rule that cloud-based services are not subject to use tax in the state.  In Rehmann Robson, the Court of Claims found that the use of Checkpoint (a web-based tax and accounting research tool) by a large accounting firm was properly characterized as a non-taxable information service, despite Treasury’s continued effort to impose use tax and litigate similar cloud-based transactions.  This taxpayer victory comes just six months after the Michigan Court of Appeals in Thomson Reuters found that a subscription to Checkpoint was primarily the sale of a service under the Catalina Marketing test, Michigan’s version of the “true object” test, which looks to whether the use of tangible personal property was incidental to the provision of services when both are provided in the same transaction.  The Thomson Reuters decision reversed a 2013 Court of Claims opinion that granted summary disposition in favor of Treasury’s ability to tax the cloud-based service as “prewritten computer software.”

Analysis

While all three Michigan decisions issued this year reach the same conclusion, the most recent decision makes an explicit effort to affirmatively block any potential avenue Treasury may use to impose the use tax on cloud-based transactions.  For what it’s worth, the Rehmann Robson opinion was written by the same judge who wrote the Auto-Owners opinion released in March 2014, and contained an identical analysis.  Unlike the Thomson Reuters decision that found use of prewritten computer software in the state, but simply found it to be incidental to the nontaxable information services provided under Catalina Marketing, Auto-Owners (and now Rehmann Robson) both undercut the Treasury’s argument before it begins.

First, the court held that there was no tangible personal property transferred because the definition of “prewritten computer software” was not satisfied.  Like many other states, Michigan defines this term as software “delivered by any means.”  The court reasoned that because the accounting firm simply accessed information via the web that was processed via BNA and Thomson Reuter’s own software, hardware and infrastructure, there was no “delivery” under a conventional understanding of the word.  Absent delivery, there was no prewritten computer software for Treasury to impose tax upon.

Second, the Court of Claims went on to note that even if prewritten computer software was delivered, the accounting firm did not sufficiently “use” the software to impose the tax.  Because the accounting firm did not exercise a right or power over the software incident to ownership (other than the ability to control research outcomes by inputting research terms), there was no use.  The court explicitly turned down Treasury’s argument [...]

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Michigan Appeals Court Reaffirms True Object Test for Remote Access Software

In Thomson Reuters, Inc. v. Department of Treasury, No. 313825 (Mich. Ct. App. May 13, 2014) (unpublished), the Michigan Court of Appeals, reversing the ruling of the Court of Claims, held that a taxpayer’s sale of online research products was not subject to Michigan use tax.  The court held that the transaction was not taxable because it was the sale of a nontaxable service and not the sale of taxable tangible personal property.

The taxpayer sold numerous information products, including subscriptions to its research platform Checkpoint.  Checkpoint is a product of particular interest to state tax practitioners as many of us use it for research.  For the uninitiated, Checkpoint is an online tax and accounting research program that provides subscribers with access, via a web browser, to court cases, rulings and other information that is compiled, synthesized and organized by Checkpoint’s content creators from multiple up-to-date sources.

The Michigan Department of Treasury determined that the taxpayer’s sales of Checkpoint subscriptions constituted the taxable sale of “prewritten computer software” and were therefore taxable.  The taxpayer argued that the sale of subscriptions to Checkpoint constituted the nontaxable sale of an information service and, alternatively, even if tangible personal property was transferred, the sale was nonetheless “primarily” the sale of a service.  The Court of Claims granted the Department’s motion for summary judgment and held that the sales were taxable.

The taxpayer appealed and the Court of Appeals overturned the Court of Claims decision.  The Court of Appeals found that the taxpayer’s transfer of tangible personal property was incidental to the service that the taxpayer provided, and thus the transaction as a whole was not taxable.  The Court of Appeals applied the test established by the Michigan Supreme Court in Catalina Marketing Sales Corp. v. Dept. of Treasury.  678 N.W.2d 619 (Mich. 2004).  Under the Catalina test, a court must objectively analyze the entire transaction and determine whether the transaction is “principally” the transfer of tangible personal property or the transfer of services with a transfer of tangible personal property that is incidental to the service.  Applying the test in this case, the Court of Appeals found that Checkpoint subscribers were not seeking the software underlying the product, but rather were primarily seeking access to up-to-date information relevant to their research needs and benefited from the expert knowledge of Checkpoint’s content creators which rendered the customers’ research more efficient.

This is the second decision out of Michigan regarding the Catalina test.  In Auto-Owners Insurance Company v. Dept. of Treasury, Case No. 12-000082-MT (Mich.Ct.Claims Mar. 20, 2014), the Michigan Court of Claims held that certain remote software access transactions were not subject to use tax because they were nontaxable services, not the transfer of software.  The Court of Claims held that under the statute, which applied use tax to software “delivered by any means,” the taxpayer’s products were not taxable because the software was not delivered.  Although the transactions were not taxable under this interpretation, the Court of Claims went on to [...]

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