After refusing to back down on the issue for years, the Michigan Department of Treasury (Department) issued guidance last week to taxpayers announcing a change in its policy on the sales and use taxation of remotely accessed prewritten computer software. This comes after years of litigating the issue in the Michigan courts, most recently with the precedential taxpayer victory in Auto-Owners Ins. Co. v. Dep’t of Treasury, No. 321505 (Mich. Ct. App. Oct. 27, 2015), in which the Michigan Court of Appeals held that remote access to software did not constitute delivery of tangible personal property. See our prior coverage here. The Department has announced it will apply Auto-Owners (and the numerous other favorable decisions) retroactively and thus allow for refunds for all open tax years. This is a huge victory for taxpayers; however, those that paid the tax (both purchasers and providers alike) must act promptly to coordinate and request a refund prior to the period of limitations expiring.
In issuing this guidance, the Department specifically adopts the Michigan Court of Appeals interpretation of “delivered by any means” (as required to be considered taxable prewritten computer software). Going forward, the “mere transfer of information and data that was processed using the software of the third-party businesses does not constitute ‘delivery by any means’” and is not prewritten software subject to sales and use tax. See Auto-Owners, at 7. Not only has the Department admitted defeat with respect to the delivery definition, but it also appears to have acquiesced to taxpayers’ arguments with respect to the true object test (or “incidental to services” test in Michigan). This test was first announced by the Michigan Supreme Court in Catalina Marketing, and provides that a court must objectively analyze the entire transaction using six factors 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. In last week’s guidance, the Department states that if only a portion of a software program is electronically delivered to a customer, the “incidental to service” test will be applied to determine whether the transaction constitutes the rendition of a nontaxable service rather than the sale of tangible personal property. However, if a software program is electronically downloaded in its entirety, it remains taxable. This guidance comes in the wake of Department and the taxpayer in Thomson Reuters, Inc. v. Dep’t of Treasury stipulating to the dismissal of a Supreme Court case involving the same issues that had been appealed by the Department. In light of these developments, it appears that the Department has given up all ongoing litigation over cloud services.
Immediate Action Required for Refunds
Taxpayers who paid sales or use tax on cloud based services are entitled to receive a refund for all open periods. In Michigan, the period of limitations for filing a refund [...]