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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Approves Sales Tax Apportionment for Software

On May 21, 2021, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a decision affirming the Massachusetts Tax Appeal Board’s decision in favor of Microsoft and Oracle, ruling that the companies may apportion sales tax to other states on software purchased by a Massachusetts company from which the software was accessed and seek a tax refund.

The case involved a claim by vendors for abatement of sales tax collected on software delivered to a location in Massachusetts but accessible from multiple states. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue (DOR) claimed that the statute gave it the sole right to decide whether the sales price of the software could be apportioned and, if so, the methods the buyer and seller had to use to claim apportionment. Under rules promulgated by the DOR, there are three methods to choose from, such as the purchaser giving the seller an exemption certificate claiming the software would be used in multiple states, none of which the purchaser used. The DOR argued that if a taxpayer did not use one of the methods specified in the rule, no apportionment was permitted. The vendors sought abatement of the tax on the portion of the sales price that could have been apportioned to other states had one of the methods specified under the rule been used. The DOR claimed the abatement procedure was not a permissible method of claiming apportionment.

The court held: (1) the statute gave the purchaser the right of apportionment and it was not up to the DOR to decide whether apportionment was permitted; (2) the abatement procedure is an available method for claiming the apportionment; and (3) the taxpayer was not limited to the procedures specified in the rule for claiming sales price apportionment.

The court’s decision was based in part on separation of powers: “Under the commissioner’s reading of [the statute], the Legislature has delegated to the commissioner the ultimate authority to decide whether to allow apportionment of sales tax on software sold in the Commonwealth and transferred for use outside the Commonwealth.” The court found such a determination represented “a fundamental policy decision that cannot be delegated.”

The Massachusetts rules reviewed by the court have their genesis in amendments to the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (SSUTA) (that never became effective) providing special sourcing rules for, among other things, computer software concurrently available for use in more than one location. Even though Massachusetts is not a member of the SSUTA, officials from the DOR participate in the Streamlined process and apparently brought those amendments home with them and had them promulgated into the Commonwealth’s sales tax rules.

Practice Notes: This case addresses one of the issues with taxing business models in the digital space. This important decision makes clear, at least in Massachusetts, that taxpayers have post-sale opportunities to reduce sales tax liability on sales/purchases of software accessible from other states where tax on the full sales price initially was collected and remitted by the seller.

Taxpayers may have refund opportunities related to this [...]

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California Supreme Court Denies BOE Petition for Review in Lucent Technologies

Last week, the California Supreme Court denied the State Board of Equalization’s (BOE’s) petition for review in Lucent Technologies, Inc. v. State Bd. of Equalization, No. S230657 (petition for review denied Jan. 20, 2016). This comes just months after the California Court of Appeals held against the BOE and ordered it to pay Lucent’s $25 million sales tax refund. As explained in more detail below, the denial finalizes the favorable precedent of the Court of Appeals in Nortel Networks Inc. v. State Bd. of Equalization, 191 Cal. App. 4th 1259, 119 Cal. Rptr. 3d 905 (2011)—representing a monumental victory for a broad range of taxpayers in California and opening the door for significant refund opportunities. Moreover, the California Supreme Court’s denial affirms the Court of Appeals decision that the BOE’s position was not substantially justified and the taxpayer was entitled to reasonable litigation costs of over $2.6 million.

Background

Lucent and AT&T (collectively Lucent) are and were global suppliers of products and services supporting, among other things, landline and wireless telephone services, the internet, and other public and private data, voice and multimedia communications networks using terrestrial and wireless technologies. Lucent manufactured and sold switching equipment (switches) to their telephone customers, which allowed the customers to provide telephone calling and other services to the end customers. The switches required software, provided on storage media, to operate. Lucent designed the software (both switch-specific and generic) that runs the switches they sell, which was copyrighted because it is an original work of authorship that has been fixed onto tapes. The software also embodies, implements and enables at least one of 18 different patents held by Lucent.

Between January 1, 1995, and September 30, 2000, Lucent entered into contracts with nine different telephone companies to: (1) sell them one or more switches; (2) provide the instructions on how to install and run those switches; (3) develop and produce a copy of the software necessary to operate those switches; and (4) grant the companies the right to copy the software onto their switch’s hard drive and thereafter to use the software (which necessarily results in the software being copied into the switch’s operating memory). Lucent gave the telephone companies the software by sending them magnetic tapes or CDs containing the software. Lucent’s placement of the software onto the tapes or discs, like the addition of any data to such physical media, physically altered those media. The telephone companies paid Lucent over $300 million for a copy of the software and for the licenses to copy and use that software on their switches.

The BOE assessed sales tax on the full amount of the licensing fees paid under the contracts between Lucent and its telephone company customers. Lucent paid the assessment and sued the BOE for a sales tax refund attributable to the software and licenses to copy and use that software at the trial court. The parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment on Lucent’s refund claims, and the Los Angeles [...]

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Texas Comptroller Defies the Laws of Physics

In this article, the authors examine a recent Texas administrative law judge’s opinion that says an out-of state company has nexus with Texas through downloaded software that it licenses to Texas customers.  They argue that the state comptroller’s adoption of the decision allows sales and use tax liability to be based on economic nexus instead of physical nexus and is therefore unconstitutional.

Read the full article.




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