SC: Consideration Paid for Purchase of Computer Software, Not Royalty, No Obligation on Buyers to Deduct Tax at Source
The Hon’ble Supreme Court of India (SC) has at long last, put to rest the two-decade old controversy in relation to taxability of the consideration paid for purchase of computer software from a non-resident distributor/ manufacturer. The controversy revolved around whether the consideration paid for purchase of the computer software would constitute ‘Royalty’ as per the provisions of section 9(1)(vi) of the Act, read with relevant Double Taxation Avoidance Agreement (‘DTAA’). There were divergent views of some High Courts as well as of the Authority for Advance Rulings on this issue, which, thankfully, has now been settled by the Hon’ble SC, against the Revenue and in favour of the taxpayers.
In the case of Engineering Analysis Centre of Excellence Private Limited1 and others (Appellants), the Hon’ble SC has held that the consideration paid for purchase of an off-the- shelf software from a non-resident seller does not tantamount to ‘Royalty’ as per Article 12 of the DTAA and hence there is no obligation on the Indian buyer to deduct tax at source under section 195 of the Income-tax Act, 1961 (‘the Act’), as the distribution agreements/ End-User Licence Agreements (EULAs) do not create any interest or right in such distributors/ end-users which would tantamount to the use of or right to use any copyright.
FACTS OF THE CASE:
The Appellants had imported/ acquired shrink wrapped computer software from non-residents distributor/ manufacturers. While making payment to those non-residents, the Appellants did not deduct tax at source under section 195 of the Act, on the premise that such amounts do not constitute ‘Royalty’; hence are not taxable in India as per the relevant DTAA and accordingly, there could not be any obligation on them to deduct tax at source under section 195 of the Act.
QUESTION BEFORE THE SC:
The key question before the Hon’ble SC was whether there would be any obligation on a resident buyer, acquiring computer software from a non-resident distributor/ manufacturer, to deduct tax at source, under section 195 of the Act, by classifying the consideration paid as ‘Royalty’ under section 9(1)(vi) of the Act, read with Article 12 of the relevant DTAA.
There were various appeals/ questions raised before the Hon’ble SC, which were grouped into four categories:
a) Computer software purchased directly by resident end-users from non-resident suppliers or manufacturers.
b) Resident distributors or resellers purchasing computer software from non-resident suppliers or manufacturers and then reselling the same to resident Indian end-users.
c) Non-resident distributors reselling the computer software to resident Indian distributors or end-users.
d) Computer software embedded into hardware and sold as an integrated unit/equipment by non-resident suppliers to resident Indian distributors or end-users.
The Appellant’s contentions have been summarized below:
- Computer software that is imported for onward sale constitutes ‘Goods’.
- Definition of Royalty as per DTAA did not extend to a derivative product of the copyright. For example, a book or a music CD or software products.
- Retrospective amendment to section 9(1)(vi) by Finance Act 2012 could not be applied to assessment years under consideration, as the law cannot compel one to do the impossible.
- Provisions of DTAA would prevail over the provisions of the Act to the extent they are more beneficial to the deductor of tax under section 195 of the Act.
- Distinguishment can be made between the sale of a copyrighted article v/s. the sale of copyright itself. As per section 14(b) of the Copyright Act, 1957 Act (“CA Act”), ‘Computer Program’ and a ‘copy of Computer Program’ are two distinct subject matters. In the instant case, no copyright was transferred, as the end-user only received a limited license to use the product by itself with no right to reproduce, sub-licence, lease, make copies, etc.
- It was also contended that explanation 4 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act would apply only to section 9(1)(vi)(b) of the Act and would not expand the definition of Royalty as contained in explanation 2 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act. Further, reference was made to Circular No. 10/2002 issued by Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), wherein, ‘remittance for royalties’ and ‘supply for computer software’ were addressed as separate distinct payments, the former attracting the ‘royalty’ provision and the latter taxable as business profits.
- Based on the doctrine of first sale/ principle of exhaustion, it was argued that the foreign supplier’s distribution rights would not extend to sale of copies of the work to other persons beyond the first sale.
The Revenue’s contentions have been summarized below:
- The primary contention of the Revenue was that what was transferred in the transaction between the parties was copyright and accordingly the payment would constitute Royalty and Indian user/ importer would be required to deduct tax at source.
- It was argued that explanation 2(v) to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act applies to payments to a non-resident by way of royalty for the use of or the right to use any copyright. Reliance was placed on the language of explanation 2(v) and it was stressed that the words “in respect of” have to be given a wide meaning.
- The Revenue further contended that since adaptation of software could be made, albeit for installation and use on a particular computer, copyright was parted with by the original owner.
- It was further pointed out that the Indian Government has expressed its reservations on the OECD Commentary dealing with the parting of copyright and royalty.
- It was argued that in some of the EULAs, it was clearly stated that what was licensed to the distributor/end-user by the non-resident would not amount to a sale, thereby making it clear that what was transferred was not goods.
- It was further argued that explanation 4 of section 9(1)(vi) of the Act existed with retrospective effect from 1976 and accordingly the Appellants ought to have deducted the tax at source even prior to the year 2012.
- The Revenue placed reliance on the ruling of PILCOM v. CIT, West Bengal- VII, 2020 SCC Online SC 426 [“PILCOM”]2, which dealt with section 194E of the Act, for the proposition that tax has to be deducted at source irrespective of whether tax is otherwise payable by the non-resident assessee.
- With respect to the doctrine of first sale/principle of exhaustion, it was argued that it would have no application since it is not statutorily recognised in section 14(b)(ii) of the CA Act. Accordingly, it was contended that when distributors of copyrighted software ‘license’ or ‘sell’ such computer software to end-users, there would be a parting of a right or interest in copyright; in as much as, such “license” or sale would be hit by section 14(b)(ii) of the CA Act.
- Provisions of CA Act
The Hon’ble SC placed reliance on the provisions of the CA Act and observed as under:
The expression ‘copyright’ means the “exclusive right” to do or authorise the doing of certain acts “in respect of a work”. In the case of a computer program, section 14(b) read with section 14(a) of the CA Act prescribes certain acts as to how the exclusive rights with the owner of the copyright may be parted with. Thus, the nature of rights prescribed under section 14(a) and section 14(b) of the CA Act would be referred to as “copyright”, which would include the right to reproduce the work in any material form, issue copies of the work to the public, perform the work in public, or make translations or adaptations of the work.
Section 16 of the CA Act states that no person shall be entitled to copyright otherwise than under the provisions of the CA Act or any other law for the time being in force. Accordingly, it is held that the expression ‘copyright’ has to be understood only as is stated in section 14 of the CA Act.
On perusal of the distribution agreements, the Hon’ble SC observed that what is granted to the distributor is only a non-exclusive, non-transferable licence to resell computer software and it was expressly stipulated that no copyright and no right to reproduce the computer program, in any manner, is transferred either to the distributor or to the ultimate end user.
It further observed that the ‘license’ that is granted under EULA, conferring no proprietary interest on the licensee, is not a licence that transfers an interest in all or any of the rights contained in sections 14(a) and 14(b) of the CA Act. The SC held that there must be a transfer by way of license or otherwise, of all or any rights mentioned in section 14(b) read with section 14(a) of the CA Act.
- Sale of Goods
The SC further observed that what is ‘licenced’ by the non-resident supplier/ distributor is in fact a sale of a physical object, which contains an embedded computer program and thereby held the same as “sale of goods” by placing reliance on the ruling of Hon’ble SC in the case of Tata Consultancy Services v. State of A.P., 2005 (1) SCC 308.3
- Royalty in the DTAA vs the Act
It was observed that DTAA provides an exhaustive definition of ‘Royalty’ as it uses the expression “means” whereas the definition of ‘Royalty’ contained in the Act is wider in nature. Accordingly, Article 12 of the DTAA defining the term ‘Royalty’ would be relevant to determine taxability under DTAA, as it is more beneficial to the assessee as compared to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act.
It was further observed that explanation 4 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act (retrospectively introduced vide Finance Act, 2012) is not clarificatory of the position as of 1 June 1976, but it expands the existing position and hence it does not clarify the legal position as it always stood.
The SC relied on two legal maxims, lex non-cogit ad impossibilia, i.e., the law does not demand the impossible and impotentia excusat legem, i.e., when there is a disability that makes it impossible to obey the law and further relied on various judicial precedents and held that any ‘person’ cannot be expected to do the impossible and accordingly the expanded definition of Royalty inserted by explanation 4 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Act cannot apply retrospectively, as such explanation was not actually and factually in the statute.
- PILCOM Ruling
It was observed that the PICLOM ruling was in respect of section194E of the Act which deals with a different set of TDS provisions, without any reference to chargeability to tax under the Act. As already held in GE Technology4, deduction of tax under section 195 can be made only if the non-resident assessee is liable to pay tax under the provisions of the Act and accordingly it had no application to the present facts of the case.
- Doctrine of First Sale/ Principle of Exhaustion
The SC relied on various judicial precedents to explain the concept of the doctrine of first sale/ principal of exhaustion, which enables free trade in material objects on which copies of protected works have been fixed and put into circulation, with the right holder’s consent. The said principle was introduced in the CA Act, vide amendment made in the year 1999.
Based on the above principle, it is held that the distribution rights subsist with the owner of the copyright, to the extent such copies are not already in circulation. Thus, it is the exclusive right of the owner to sell or to give on commercial rental or offer for sale or for commercial rental, ‘any copy of computer program’. The distributor who resells the computer program to the end-user cannot fall within its scope.
- Interpretation of treaties and OECD Commentary
India has reserved its right under the OECD Commentary with respect to taxation of royalties and fees for technical services. However, in this regard, the SC has noted that, after India took such positions, no bilateral amendment was made by India and the other Contracting States to change the definition of royalties. Accordingly, the OECD commentary would only have persuasive value with respect to the interpretation of the term ‘Royalties.
- CBDT Circular No. 10/2202 dated 9 October 2002
The SC further referred to the above-mentioned Circular, wherein the Revenue itself has made a distinction between royalties and remittance for the supply of computer software (which is treated as business profits and taxability depends upon the existence of permanent establishment in India).
In light of the aforementioned reasoning, the Hon’ble SC held that the consideration paid for the purchase of an ‘off-the-shelf’ software from a non-resident seller did not amount to ‘Royalty’ as per Article 12 of DTAA, as the distribution agreements/ EULAs did not create any interest or right in such distributors/ end-users, which tantamounted to the use of or right to use any copyright. Since the amount was not chargeable to tax in India, there was no obligation on the Indian resident buyer to deduct tax at source under section 195 of the Act.
The taxation of royalty has always been a vexed issue in the Indian context. There have been conflicting rulings on the issue relating to the characterization of payments towards the purchase of computer software. This is indeed a welcome ruling, which has finally put to rest a long litigation.
However, it is pertinent to note that the Finance Act, 2020 has introduced the provisions of ‘equalisation levy’ leviable on a non-resident e-commerce operator from e-commerce supply of services. These transactions are exempted from Income-tax under section 10(50) of the Act.
Further, vide, Finance Bill 2021, it has been clarified that exemption under section 10(50) will not apply to royalty or fees for technical services, that are taxable under the Act read with the DTAA. Hence, as a corollary, it may be deduced that, based on this SC ruling, if a non-resident takes shelter under the DTAA, for payments that are made to it for purchase of computer software, the non-resident could still be liable to pay equalisation levy on the satisfaction of certain prescribed conditions. It is therefore advised that going forward, such issues are analysed carefully and separately, before arriving at any conclusion on the effective taxability that arises. Additionally, in cases where the payments are being made to parties residing in non-DTAA countries, suitable arguments would require to be made, on a case-to-case basis using this decision as a persuasive tool.
2  271 Taxman 200 (SC)
3  271 ITR 401
4  327 ITR 456