Tuesday, February 26, 2013

February 2013: An Eventful Month In The Debate Regarding Use Tax Collection By Internet Retailers

If it seems like there has been a lull in the debate regarding whether ecommerce vendors should be required to collect sales and use tax, this month has seen a series of developments that demonstrate the conflict continues apace.

On February 6, 2013, New York’s highest court heard oral arguments by attorneys for Amazon.com, Overstock.com, and the state Department of Taxation and Finance in the Internet retailers’ respective constitutional challenges to the New York affiliate nexus law enacted in 2008. (The cases are captioned Amazon.com v. New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, Court of Appeals Case No.APL-2012-00045, and Overstock.com v. New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, Court of Appeals Case No. APL-2012-0001.)  Recall that, under the New York law, an out-of-state retailer is presumed to be soliciting sales through representatives in the state if it enters into a contract with a New York resident for the placement of a link on the resident’s website that refers internet users to the out-of-state retailer’s website, pays the New York resident compensation based on sales to customers completed through the link, and makes a minimum $10,000 in such sales to New York customers.  See N.Y.Tax Law § 1101(b)(8)(vi).  A retailer with an in-state representative that solicits sales is required under New York law to collect and remit use tax on sales to New York customers.  The state prevailed before the trial court and intermediate appellate court finding that the law was not unconstitutional on its face.  According to reports, the Justices on the Court of Appeals appeared somewhat receptive to Amazon’s arguments that (1) the law violates the Due Process Clause because the presumption cannot be effectively rebutted and (2) the law violates the Quill “physical presence” standard of nexus.  That said, the state has the advantage of having prevailed below.  Decisions by a state high court are usually issued several months after argument, and we will continue to monitor the case.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Traps for the Unwary: Taxation of Digital Products

Recently, I presented at a webinar hosted by Strafford Publishing on the subject of sales and use tax on digital products and services.  It almost goes without saying that the interstate sale of digital products—whether books or software—is complicated, if for no other reason than it requires analyzing the sales and use tax consequences of such transactions based upon forty-five states’ (and the District of Columbia’s) sales tax laws, which were adopted long before the advent of the digital age.  For example, the starting point for sales tax analysis in most states is whether the transaction involves the sale of “tangible personal property.”  Is a digital product such as a digital book that is downloaded by the customer tangible personal property?

The states do not provide for uniform treatment of the taxability of digital products from state to state, nor are all digital products taxed similarly within a given state.  Colorado, for example, taxes digital books and music, but does not tax digital software.  Twenty-five states tax digital books, music and videos, while thirty states tax prewritten software.

What makes analysis in this field even trickier are the different methods of delivery of digital products and the various pricing plans under which such products are sold.  For example,  under one delivery method, the seller provides the buyer an electronic access code to permit the buyer to download the digital product at the buyer’s convenience.  For a sale such as this, in addition to analyzing whether the underlying product is taxable, the seller must also determine whether the sale of the access code is taxable at the time of such sale.  The SSUTA, of which there are 24 member states, treats the sale of a “digital code” that entitles the purchaser to download a taxable digital product as a taxable transaction.  See Section 332(G).  But not every state, of course, is a member of the SSUTA and non-member states do not always follow this principle.  For instance, the non-member states of Texas, New York, and Illinois treat the sale of such access codes as tantamount to selling a gift card.  These states treat the sale of a gift card or access code as the sale of an intangible.  It is only when the gift card is redeemed that a taxable sale of tangible personal property has occurred.  See, for example, Ill. General Information Letter ST 10-0052-GIL (June 4, 2010).