A recent ruling by the Tennessee Department of Revenue (Ruling #12-11) illustrates some of the anomalies and pitfalls in properly taxing cloud computing services. The request for ruling concerned a service that provided Tennessee users access to software maintained on remote servers located outside of Tennessee. This is otherwise known as an SaaS service. In addition, the charge for the service permitted users access to certain databases, including certain reference materials such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. It would appear that the users did not download the references to their computers.
One of the anomalies in the ruling is that the Department stated that the SaaS portion of the service was not taxable, but access to the databases was taxable because the Department deemed the access to include the right to license and use digital books. As of January 1, 2009, the right to license and use digital books is taxable pursuant to an amendment to the Tennessee sales and use tax statute adopting the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement (“SSUTA”).
The Department’s basis for this distinction in taxability appears to be that access to software is not taxable because “title, possession, and control” of the software always resides outside of Tennessee. On the other hand, the taxability of digital books is predicated on the following underscored clause from Tenn. Code Ann § 67-6-233(a), which provides for the taxation of digital books when there has been the “retail sale, lease, licensing, or use of specified digital products transferred to or accessed by subscribers or consumers in this state.” (emphasis added). Section 67-6-231(a), providing for the taxation of software, includes only “software transferred by tangible storage media or delivered electronically,” but does not include access to the software. The difference between the two statutory provisions is subtle. On the one hand, digital books are taxable if the consumer in Tennessee has “access” to the books, without being required to download them. On the other hand, computer software is not taxable, even if the consumer has access to the software, so long as the consumer does not download the software to his or her computer in Tennessee.