Taxing the Intangibles – coming soon to a screen near you!

No sooner had Netflix launched in Australia than Treasurer Joe Hockey announced the imposition of GST on “intangibles” purchased from overseas vendors. The Treasurer has also indicated that the GST-free threshold for on-line imports will be lowered from the current $1,000. Dubbed the “Netflix tax”, Australian consumers should now expect to pay more for their digital content such as video, music, software and e-books, even though on most evidence, we are already charged more for comparable products than in other markets.

Geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers…

Backdrop

We all know why the Treasurer has proposed this scheme: the Government has to make up for declining tax receipts, and appease the States who are squabbling over the allocation of GST revenue between them. Plus the current Senate inquiry into corporate tax avoidance by companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft (who divert locally sourced income to offshore entities to reduce their income tax liability in Australia) is driving the public and political agenda on global tax minimization schemes (which are nothing new, of course).*

But it’s not as simple as slapping an extra 10% on the price of a movie download, even though GST is a relatively easy and cost-effective way of generating tax revenue. For one thing, there is little consistency in how vendors currently sell their digital products in Australia. Secondly, geo-blocking is already an obstacle for Australian consumers, leading to the sort of content piracy infringement that will now make local ISP’s and their subscribers more vulnerable to legal action, following the recent “Dallas Buyers Club” court ruling. Thirdly, local retailers who have long campaigned to have the GST-free threshold removed or lowered fail to acknowledge why customers prefer to shop from overseas vendors.

Goods & Services Tax

GST (similar to VAT in Europe) is a simple consumption tax. It applies to the sale or supply of most items (except things like fresh food and health services) at a flat rate of 10%.

Even better, the Government and the tax authorities rely on businesses to collect, report and remit GST receipts, making it relatively cheap to administer (when compared to other taxes) via the Business Activity Statement process managed by the Australian Taxation Office.

The GST is a key topic of the current review of the tax system – likely to result in a higher rate (or different rates), and/or broader application to items not currently included.

Vendor Inconsistency

In principle, I don’t have a problem in paying GST on digital items I buy from overseas vendors – but there is so much inconsistency that there is a risk of consumers having to pay two lots of sales tax.

For example, every iTunes receipt issued by Apple Pty Ltd (an Australian entity) states that the sale amount already includes GST – in which case, Apple should be remitting that component to the ATO, and no need for a price increase.

However, Adobe chooses to invoice me from Ireland, and as such no GST (or VAT) is applied, but I am charged forex fees, even though the invoice amount is expressed in Australian dollars, because my bank treats this as a foreign transaction.

Meanwhile, although some UK vendors I buy from direct do not apply GST/VAT on my orders (Amazon UK included), others do – meaning I risk having to pay both the GST and VAT. As a further sign of vendor inconsistency, Amazon’s US store does not appear to deduct US sales tax for foreign customers; neither the UK or US Amazon stores sell music downloads to Australian customers; and Amazon’s Australian store only sells e-books and apps.

Geo-blocking

The decision in the “Dallas Buyers Club” IP infringement case brought by Voltage Films, has again drawn attention to Australia’s poor reputation for copyright piracy as evidenced by the number and frequency of illegal downloads.

Some journalists have commented that distributors often delay the local release of imported content (for various reasons) although this was not seen as a justification for piracy (and quite rightly so).

While foreign films are frequently released later in Australia, it’s interesting that TV (even free to air channels) has woken up to this, and now broadcasters rush to fast-track imported shows to keep audiences happy.

It’s also interesting to note that the Productivity Commission, as part of its competition policy review of IP laws, has suggested that if local rights holders and distributors choose not to exercise their commercial rights, under a “use it or lose it” model, third-party distributors would be able to step in. This also has the potential to undermine the archaic industry practice of geo-blocking, whereby sales of music, film and TV content (physical and digital) are restricted by territory.

Local retailers and distributors need to lift their game

Does the absence of GST really encourage consumers to buy from offshore retailers? I would beg to differ.

Local rights holders often do not bother to make content and products available in Australia. And local retailers won’t usually stock products if they are not readily available from wholesalers or distributors.

I recently had to contact an overseas artist, the UK record label and its Australian distributor several times to make their music available online in Australia. The local distributor had not bothered to release the content, even though they had the rights, but geo-blocking prevented me from accessing it legally from overseas suppliers.

It’s the combination of inadequate local distribution, non-availability, higher prices and lacklustre service that encourages Australian consumers to buy from overseas, even if that means circumventing geo-blocking. In many cases, I doubt the addition of GST will be a serious deterrent to online overseas shopping.

In my own case, I once found that the local branches of a global retail brand chose not to stock the item I wanted, and their US parent geo-blocked me from ordering on-line. So I resorted to buying in the “grey” or parallel imports market, from an offshore vendor willing to ship direct to Australia. It was still cheaper, even after shipping costs, and even if GST had been added (I probably paid US sales tax on the transaction anyway), than if I had bought from a local retailer (assuming they bothered to stock the item).

Hopefully, this debate on GST and the Productivity Commission’s review of competition policy will finally give local retailers an incentive to do a better job of serving their customers.

* The debate on corporate tax minimization might want to look at where “value” is created, and where the revenue is booked, that gives rise to a tax on the resulting profits. For me, the retail value of intangibles such as digital products is created when someone pays to download them, at the point of sale – i.e., in the consumer’s geographic location.  Although the vendor may argue that the IP is owned by an offshore entity to whom they must pay royalties, the individual download itself does not have any standalone value, until it is accessed by the consumer. Even a high rate of royalty repatriation could not be more than the retail price, so logic might suggest that local profits should be taxed accordingly.

Next week: What can we learn from the music industry?

Australian MPs recommend a ban on geo-blocking

In a recent blog about geo-blocking, I commented on the frustrations of Australian consumers in trying to access digital content. That blog was written in light of a parliamentary inquiry into IT price discrimination.

ImageA Report by the House of Representatives Infrastructure and Communications Committee has just been published, and makes for some fascinating reading.

The Report reveals a number of key themes:

  • There is strong evidence that Australian consumers pay between 50 and 100 per cent more for the same product than consumers in comparable markets.
  • Price differentials cannot be fully explained by the so-called “Australia tax” (i.e., the relatively higher costs of doing business locally, due to wages, taxes, market regulation, shipping costs, economies of scale, etc.).
  • Consumer complaints about price discrimination are not being taken seriously by the industry as a whole.
  • Industry participants either deflected responsibility for price discrimination to other parts of the supply chain, or blamed inconsistent market practices as justifying the need for different regional and national price policies.
  • Despite being given the opportunity by the Committee to defend their pricing practices in public, most industry participants declined to co-operate in full; this gave rise to Apple, Adobe and Microsoft each being compelled to give evidence.
  • A number of submissions made by industry participants appeared to be disingenuous, self-serving, evasive and even misleading.

The Committee accepts that IT vendors are entitled to run their businesses as they see fit, and there is nothing to stop them from charging whatever prices they like. There was also general acknowledgment that copyright holders must be able to protect their IP assets.

However, geo-blocking (especially of digital content) simply reinforces price disparity based on a customer’s geographical location, rather than protecting the interests of copyright holders. Further, although so-called “Technological Protection Measures” (TPM) or “Effective Technological Measures” (ETM) and “Digital Rights Management” systems (DRM) may have a legitimate role in controlling copyright (and as such they enjoy protection under the relevant Copyright Law), their net effect has been to limit competition and to lock consumers into “walled gardens” which places considerable power in the hands of IT vendors as to how, when and where consumers access content.

In short, the Committee made several recommendations designed to address price discrimination and restricted market access imposed on Australian consumers, including:

  • Remove any remaining restrictions on parallel imports (in a bid to increase market competition among distributors and retailers).
  • Clarify the legal circumvention of TPM/ETM/DRM barriers that are purely designed as geo-blocking tools (rather than copyright protection measures).
  • Educate Australian consumers about their ability to buy cheaper goods from overseas, or to legally circumvent geo-blocking (without compromising product warranties or infringing copyright).
  • As a last resort, place a ban on geo-blocking and outlaw contacts or terms of service that rely on and enforce geo-blocking.

Unfortunately, while this Report is of great significance to the Australian digital economy, and seeks to achieve a balance between the rights of copyright holders and the interests of consumers, it is likely to be overshadowed by concerns about tax avoidance in respect to multinational companies. No doubt Australian consumers will make a connection between global IT companies whose products they buy, and transnational tax minimization strategies linked to transfer pricing policies and the routing of content royalties and copyright licensing fees via low-tax jurisdictions.

Geo-blocking: the last digital frontier?

Last month, senior executives from AdobeApple and Microsoft were summoned to appear before an Australian Parliamentary inquiry into IT pricing policies. It was alleged that Australian consumers can pay up to 70% more for comparable products and services sold in other markets.

Leaving aside the additional costs of distributing and shipping physical goods to Australia, at the heart of the pricing disparity is the practice of “geo-blocking” whereby customers in one location cannot purchase digital or physical products direct from vendors outside their country of residence. It’s the sort of industry practice that prevents Australian consumers buying some print books and CD’s from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk (and neither store sells MP3’s to Australian customers).

When asked to explain the apparent disparity in market pricing, the tech execs responded with comments such as, “the inclusion of Australian sales tax in the retail price is confusing”, “it’s a reflection of the cost of doing business in Australia” and “it’s all because of the content owners’ and copyright holders’ archaic territorial licensing practices”.

Their answers were variously described as “evasive“, “unbelievable” and “failed to impress“. The suggestion by one CEO that Australian consumers should fly to the USA to buy cheaper products overseas, was frankly ludicrous, especially as sales warranties given in America would likely be invalid once the goods were brought back to Australia.

When it can be cheaper to buy a CD copy of an album from an on-line music retailer in the UK rather than download the MP3 version from a vendor in Australia, clearly there is something wrong with this picture.

Parallel imports” and “grey goods” are terms used in the fashion, cosmetic and other retail sectors to describe situations where wholesalers and distributors import branded goods that are technically subject to strict territorial sales and distribution licenses held by third parties. Alternatively, consumers in one country purchase goods direct from a retailer or distributor located in another country, who does not have the rights to sell or export the products to the consumer’s country of residence. The license holders can seek to block these unauthorized imports/exports, but in cases where the license holder has chosen not to distribute those specific goods, these “grey” imports could possibly be deemed legitimate (under the “use it or lose it” principle).

Whatever the legal interpretation of territorial licensing, when it comes to digital content, is geo-blocking still appropriate? Let me offer an illustration:

Imagine you are an Australian traveller on a business trip to New York. You visit a local book shop, to pick up a copy of the latest novel by your favourite author.

Unfortunately, the salesperson tells you the book is not in stock, because the publisher does not distribute that particular title to independent stores; instead, you have to go to the mega book store across town.

After making your way to the mega store, you find out that before you can make any purchase, you have to open an account, submit your credit card details and other personal information (and sign a contract that says things like “you must always keep books bought from our store in our proprietary and specially designed book shelves”).

Just as you are about to make your purchase, the shop assistant asks you for your passport. “Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t sell our books to people from Australia. You have to go to our mega store in Sydney.”

On the way back to your hotel, you phone the publisher (whose office is on your route) to see if you can buy a copy direct from their sales department. The conversation goes something like this:

“You sound Australian. Sorry, but we can’t sell it to you. You have to buy it from our Australian distributor.”

“OK, can you tell me who the Australian distributor is, or which shops stock your titles?”

“I’m not sure. I think it depends on who the author is. Or whether it’s the hardback or paperback edition. Or whether our distributor is importing that particular title. Maybe we only sell it through the Australian branch of the mega book store that wouldn’t sell you it to you while you were in town. Have a nice day.”

Great. With nothing to read on the 20-hour flight back to Australia, you catch up on a lot of episodes of “Bored to Death”, because you don’t expect them to be shown on Australian TV for at least a year. (But that’s another industry scenario…)

Back home in Australia, you visit the Sydney branch of the mega book store. “I’m sorry, we don’t have that title in stock, because we haven’t had enough customer requests to justify importing any copies…..”

Is it any wonder, with these sorts of restrictive commercial practices common in the software and digital content industries, that Australia has the highest level of illegal music downloading by capita, not because all Australian consumers are unwilling to pay for content, but often because customers cannot legitimately buy it.