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OECD BEPS Framework: Recent Development

Addressing tax issues arising in the digital economy has been a priority of the international community since past several years. It aims to deliver a consensus-based solution and ensure Multinational Enterprises (MNEs) pay a fair share of tax in the jurisdiction they operate. After years of intensive negotiations, the Organization for Export Co-operation and Development (OECD) / G20 has recently introduced a major reform in the international tax framework for taxing the Digital Economy.

The OECD / G20 inclusive framework on Base Erosion and Profit Shifting (BEPS) [“IF”] has issued a Statement, on 8th October 2021, agreeing on a two pillar-solution to address the tax challenges arising from the digitalization of the economy. There are 136 countries, including India, out of a total of 140 countries, representing more than 90% of the global GDP, that have agreed to this Statement. All members of the OECD countries have joined in this initiative and there are four G20 country members  (i.e. Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan & Sri Lanka) who have not yet joined. The broad framework of the two-pillar approach as per the Statement is as follows:

 

Pillar One

 

Introduction and applicability:

  • Pillar One focuses on fairer distribution of revenue and allocation of taxing rights between the market jurisdictions (where the users are located), based on a ‘’special purpose nexus’’ rule, using a revenue-based allocation.
  • Applicable to large MNEs with a global turnover in excess of  Euro 20 Billion and profitability above 10% (i.e. profit before tax)[1]. This revenue threshold is expected to be reduced to Euro 10 Billion, upon successful review, after 7 years of the IF coming into force.
  • The regulated financial services sector and extractive industries are kept out of the scope of Pillar One.

 

Calculation Methodology:

  • Such allocation will help determine the ‘’Amount A’’ under Pillar one.
  • The special-purpose nexus rule will apply solely to determine whether a jurisdiction qualifies for Amount A allocation based on which 25% of residual profits, defined as profit in excess of 10% of revenue, would be allocated to the market jurisdictions using a revenue-based allocation key.
  • Allocation vis-à-vis nexus rule will be provided for market jurisdictions in which the MNE derives at least Euro 1 Million  of revenue  [Euro 250,000  for smaller jurisdictions (i.e. jurisdiction having  GDP lower than Euro 40 Billion )]
  • Profits will be based on financial accounting income, subject to:
    • Minimal adjustments; and
    • Carry forward of losses
  • Detailed revenue sourcing rules for specific categories of transactions shall be developed to ensure that revenues are sourced to end market jurisdiction, where goods or services are consumed.
  • Safe harbour rules will be separately notified, so as to cap the allocation of baseline marketing and distribution profits of the MNE, which may otherwise already be taxed in the market jurisdiction.

 

Tax Certainty:

  • Rules will be developed to ensure that no double taxation of profits gets allocated to the market jurisdiction, by using either the exemption or the credit method.
  • Commitment has been provided to have mandatory and binding dispute prevention and resolution mechanisms to eliminate double taxation of Amount A and also resolve issues w.r.t transfer pricing and business profits disputes.
  • An elective binding dispute resolution mechanism for issues related to Amount A will be available only for developing economies, in certain cases. The eligibility of jurisdiction for this elective mechanism will be reviewed regularly.

 

Implementation:

  • Amount A will be implemented through a Multilateral Convention (MLC), which will be developed to introduce a multilateral framework for all the jurisdictions that join the IF.
  • The IF has mandated the Task Force on the Digital Economy (TFDE) to define and clarify the features of Amount A (e.g. elimination of double taxation, Marketing and Distribution Profits Safe Harbour), develop the MLC, and negotiate its content so that all jurisdictions that have committed to the Statement will be able to participate.
  • MLC will be developed and is expected to be open for signature in the year 2022, with Amount A expected to come into effect in the year 2023.
  • IF members may need to make changes to domestic law to implement the new taxing rights over Amount A. To facilitate consistency in the approach taken by jurisdictions and to support domestic implementation consistent with the agreed timelines and their domestic legislative procedures, the IF has mandated the TFDE to develop model rules for domestic legislation by early 2022 to give effect to Amount A.
  • The tax compliance will be streamlined allowing in-scope MNEs to manage the process through a single entity.

 

Unilateral Measures:

  • The MLC will require all parties to remove all digital service tax (DST) and other similar taxes (eg: Equalisation levy from India perspective) with respect to all companies and to commit not to introduce such measures in the future.
  • No newly enacted DST or other relevant similar measures will be imposed on any company from 8 October 2021 and until earlier than 31 December 2023 or coming into force of the MLC.

 

Pillar Two

 

Introduction:

 

  • Pillar Two consists of Global anti-Base Erosion Rules (GloBE) to ensure large MNEs pay a minimum level of tax thereby removing the tax arbitrage benefit which arises by artificially shifting the base from high tax jurisdiction to low tax jurisdiction with no economic substance.
  • Pillar Two is a mix of several rules, viz. (i) Income Inclusion Rule (IIR); (ii) Undertaxed Payment Rule (UTPR); and (iii) Subject to Tax Rule (STTR).
  • IIR imposes a top-up tax on parent entity in respect of low taxed income of a constituent entity
  • UTPR denies deductions or requires an equivalent adjustment to the extent low tax income of a constituent entity is not subject to tax under an IIR.
  • STTR is a treaty-based rule which allows source jurisdiction to impose limited source taxation on certain related-party payments subject to tax below a minimum rate. The STTR will be creditable as a covered tax under the GloBE rules.
  • There would be a 10-year transition period for exclusion of a certain percentage of the income of intangibles and payroll which will be reduced on year on year basis
  • GloBE provides de minimis exclusion where the MNE has revenue of less than Euro 10 Million and profit of less than Euro 1 Million and also provides exclusion of income from international shipping.

 

Calculation Methodology:

 

  • Pillar Two introduces a minimum effective tax rate (ETR) of 15% on companies for the purpose of IIR and UTPR and would apply to MNEs reporting a global turnover above Euro 750 Million under country-by-country report.
  • The IIR allocates top-up tax based on a top-down approach, subject to a split-ownership rule for shareholdings below 80%. The UTPR allocates top-up tax from low-tax constituent entities, including those located in the Ultimate Parent Entities (UPE) jurisdiction. However, MNEs that have a maximum of EUR 50 million tangible assets abroad and that operate in no more than 5 other jurisdictions, would be excluded from the UTPR GloBE rules in the initial phase of their international activity.
  • IF members recognize that STTR is an integral part of Pillar Two for developing countries and applies to payments like interest, royalties, and a defined set of other payments. The minimum rate for STTR will be 9%, however, the tax rights will be limited to the difference between the minimum rate and tax rate on payment.
  • GloBE rules would not be applicable to Government entities, international organizations, non-profit organizations, pension funds or investment funds that are UPE of an MNE Group or any holding vehicle used by such entities, organizations, or funds.

 

Implementation:

  • Model rules to give effect to the GloBE rules are expected to be developed by the end of November 2021. These model rules will define the scope and set out the mechanics of the GloBE rules. They will include the rules for determining the ETR on a jurisdictional basis and the relevant exclusions, such as the formulaic substance-based carve-out.
  • An implementation framework that facilitates the coordinated implementation of the GloBE rules is proposed to be developed by the end of 2022. This implementation framework will cover agreed administrative procedures (e.g. detailed filing obligations, multilateral review processes) and safe-harbors to facilitate both compliance by MNEs and administration by tax authorities.
  • Pillar Two is proposed to be effective in the year 2023, with the UTPR coming into effect in the year 2024.

 

FM Comments :

 

With the introduction of the OECD/G20 inclusive framework on BEPS, OECD expects revenues of developing countries to go up by 1.5-2% and increase in overall reallocation of profits to developing countries of about USD 125 Billion. India, being a huge market to large MNEs, has always endorsed this global tax deal. However, with the introduction of this framework, India will have to abolish all unilateral measures, such as equalization levy tax and Significant Economic Presence (digital permanent establishment) provisions. MNEs will also have to re-visit their structure to ring-fence their tax positions based on the revised digital tax norms.  This Statement lays down a road map for a robust international tax framework w.r.t taxing of the digital economy,  not restricted to online digital transactions.

References

[1] Calculated, using an “averaging mechanism”, details of which are awaited.

Image Credits: Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

With the introduction of the OECD/G20 inclusive framework on BEPS, OECD expects revenues of developing countries to go up by 1.5-2% and increase in overall reallocation of profits to developing countries of about USD 125 Billion. India, being a huge market to large MNEs, has always endorsed this global tax deal.

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Global Captive Centers in India: Can Add Value if Set Up Differently

Major forces of change, such as the emergence of new technologies, maturing of platform-based business models and other competitive threats are forcing businesses to transform themselves. Another driver of large-scale change is the pandemic, which has led to new ways of working. Hybrid models, where a large chunk of employees work remotely and not from a designated office space, are now becoming the norm. Although some companies have begun to announce plans for their employees to return to workplaces, the consensus opinion is that a hybrid model is going to become the new norm because it significantly reduces operating costs; also, employees are finding it more convenient.

One area where the above changes are clearly visible relates to how large and medium enterprises across industries are looking at outsourcing to countries such as India. In recent years, the contours of both IT outsourcing and BPO have evolved rapidly; the above-mentioned forces of change are only accelerating the velocity of change.

A survey by NASSCOM recently found that by 2025, MNCs are likely to set up 500 new Global Captive Centers (GCCs) in India. Until two years ago, the number of such units established annually was around 50. This demonstrates that India’s large talent pool continues to be attractive. But it’s a different world we live in than even five years ago.

Earlier, most MNCs viewed their GCCs in India as low-cost delivery centers and design, architecture, prioritization of projects etc. were all the exclusive domain of Business/Technology leaders in the parent company. Cost arbitrage opportunities still exist in India vis-à-vis western countries, and thus, cost savings will remain an important objective for evaluating GCC performance. However, the ongoing shifts are raising the bar on how GCCs are expected to contribute to their parent organizations. Along with cost-efficient service delivery, enhancing automation, driving process innovation and enabling adoption of new technologies and architecture paradigms will all become important performance criteria. In some cases, there may even be expectations of new product innovations coming out of the Indian GCC.

MNCs will need appropriate operating models and talent to deliver on the potential. Employee contracts need to be suitably structured. IPR must be appropriately protected. Compliance with data privacy and other regulations must be ensured. As MNCs plan and implement their GCCs in India, they must keep in mind that India too is changing rapidly. They must formulate their strategies keeping in mind four specific factors:

  • Quality infrastructure (including reliable electricity and broadband connectivity) is now available across the country, and not limited to Tier 1 cities. This gives companies a wider choice of locating their GCCs.
  • As a result of reverse-migration triggered by the pandemic, talent too is available in smaller cities across the country. Given the possibility of remote working, the proximity to families and lower cost of living have become significant incentives; in fact, many employees prefer to live and work from such locations.
  • Many state governments are offering incentives to companies establishing operations in less-developed parts of their states and creating employment opportunities.
  • The country’s FDI, income tax and GST regimes are also frequently being tweaked to make India more competitive and business-friendly.

All this means that making choices and decisions around business objectives, investment routing, structuring and locations based on criteria and checklists that were relevant even a couple of years ago may lead to sub-optimal outcomes. Your GCC in India has the potential to be a global Centre of Excellence- so make sure that you make the right decisions so that your investments deliver ROI in ways that go far beyond cost arbitrage.

Mr. Sandip Sen, former Global CEO of Aegis and a well-known veteran of the BPO industry, put it thus: “These are exciting times for the Business Process Management industry for many reasons. Use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), analytics and higher levels of automation mean that players at the lower end of the value chain will need to raise their capabilities. In the next phase, GCCs will focus more on innovation as well as technology enablement aimed at enterprises to embrace ecosystem-based business models and higher levels of customer-centricity. But to achieve all this, companies have to take an approach that is very different from what they might have taken some years ago”.

 

Image Credits: Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

MNCs will need appropriate operating models and talent to deliver on the potential. Employee contracts need to be suitably structured. IPR must be appropriately protected. Compliance with data privacy and other regulations must be ensured. 

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Project Cost in Infrastructure Projects: Concept, Challenges and Way Forward

The IMF and Central Statistic Organization had dubbed the Indian economy as the fastest growing economy back in 2019. Moving forward, in 2021 despite the havoc wrecked by the pandemic on advanced economies across the globe, the IMF has kept India’s growth forecast unchanged at 9.5%. In order to sustain India’s growth momentum, the development of country’s infrastructure sector is cogent. The National Infrastructure Pipeline has been the focus of current policies, with an unprecedented increase in capital expenditure allocation for FY 2021-22 by 34.5% to INR 5.5 lakh crore to propel infrastructure creation. However, the April-June 2021 report of The Ministry of Statistics states that 470 projects sanctioned by the centre suffered from a cost overrun of 61.5 percent, that is Rs 4,46,169.37 crore[1].

Project cost remains the central concern for any seminal discussion on infrastructural projects in India or around the world. This is the nebulous point where a host of stakeholders would converge to dispute, disagree, or litigate. This article aims to discuss the concept of project cost and its various implications for the different stakeholders involved.

Introduction to Infrastructure and Projects

 

Costs that are reasonably incurred for the acquisition and construction of infrastructure are referred to as infrastructure costs. Hence, Project cost could mean the total cost of an infrastructure project.  In India, there is no clear definition of the term infrastructure. However, on 1st March 2012, the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure approved the framework to include a harmonised master list of sub-sectors to guide all the agencies responsible for supporting infrastructure in India. These sub-sectors include transports and logistics, energy, water and sanitation, communication, and social infrastructure. Out of the plethora of these sub-sectors, during the fiscals of 2020-2025, it is expected that sub-sectors such as Energy (24%), Roads (19%), Railways (13%) and Urban (16%) shall constitute 70%of the projected capital expenditure in infrastructure in India[2]. The total capital expenditure as per the report is expected to be 102 lakh crore Indian rupees. Furthermore, in India, the current investment in infrastructure is USD 3.9 Trillion, and the required investment is USD 4.5 Trillion, leaving a gap of USD 526 Billion[3]. Therefore, the energy and infrastructure sector are instrumental in generating tremendous employment opportunities and drive a substantial increase in GDP per annum in India as well as countries all over the world.

 

Structure of Project Finance Transactions

 

The main parties involved in a project finance transaction structure are (i) The Authority or the Government (ii) The Private Party Investors/Developers, Sponsors or Promotors and (iii) the Lenders. These three parties are key players responsible for the determination of project costs in infrastructure and construction projects. The principal point of convergence for these three players is the project company (i.e., also known as special purpose vehicle) set up by the private party investors under which the infrastructure project is formed and under which the project exists in the concession agreement. The project cost is mainly estimated by the private party and the lenders who would finance in the form of equity and debt. The typical financial structure for infrastructure projects has a debt-to-equity ratio of 75:25. However, the ratio may vary depending upon the risks involved.

                Illustration I: Key parties that influence the project cost of an infrastructure project

                                                                                                                     

 

Risks that affect the Determination of Project Cost

 

Every project has certain risks attached to its completion. These risks influence the determination of project costs by the authority, the private parties and the lenders. The risks, in turn, then affect the total cost of the project. The risks affecting the three parties are explained below:

 

                                Illustration II: Risks that affect the determination of project cost

    

 Risk for Authority

Risk for Private Party
Investors

Risk for Lender

Technical or physical risks

Economic or market risks

Economic or market risks

Risk relating to land acquisition

Construction and completion risk – cost overrun/time
overrun/delays

Financing risks

For eg. Technical or physical risks may include risks
associated with
technology during
construction and operation as well as social and environmental risks.

For eg. Economic or
market risks may include input and output price variations, variation in
demand, debt/equity financing as well as counterparty risks.

For eg. Economic or
market risks may include input and output price variations, variation in
demand, debt/equity financing as well as counterparty risks.

The other risks that affect the cost of the project are contractual and legal risks, resource and raw material availability risks, demand risks, design risks, force majeure, property damage, permits, licenses, authorization, supply risk, social and environmental risks.

 

The Major Risks affecting Project Cost in India: Cost Overrun and Time Overrun

 

Out of the myriad of risks affecting project cost, the major risks in India are the risks associated with cost and time overruns. As many as 525 infrastructure projects were hit by time overruns, and as many as 470 infrastructure projects, each worth Rs 150 crore or more, were hit by cost overruns of over Rs 4.38 Trillion owing to delays, according to a report by the Ministry of Statistics, cited previously[4] The main causes for time overruns are delay in obtaining forest and environmental clearances, delay in land acquisition,  and lack of infrastructure support.  As per the report, there are other reasons like delay in project financing, delay in finalisation of detailed engineering, alteration in scope, delay in ordering and equipment supply, law, geological issues, contractual complications and delay in tendering.

 

The Key Elements of Project Cost

 

The elements of ‘costing’ include variables such as raw materials, labour, and expenses. Thus, for infrastructure projects as well, at the time of estimation of cost, these variables would come into play. The factors affecting cost for a public-private partnership project could be the following:

 

                        Illustration III: Factors affecting Cost of Projects: PPP model projects

FACTORS AFFECTING COST OF PROJECTS : PPP MODEL PROJECTS

Materials

Labour

Consultants

Contractor

Client

External
Factors

Dispute
Resolution

Costs and delays
associated with procurement and delivery of materials, import costs

Availability or non –
availability of skilled labour.

Recurring changes in
design

Poor site management
and supervision

Change orders

Force Majeure events
and weather changes.

International dispute
resolution in outside jurisdictions[1]

Unavailability of raw
materials

Poor management of
labour

Delay in approvals and
inspections

Inept subcontractors

Political and policy
changes such as MII[2]

Approvals from
authorities

Costly and time-consuming
domestic litigation

Wastage and theft of
materials – 13 to 14 million construction waste (FY 2000-2001)[3]

Increasing cost of
labour

Inaccuracy in design,
costs associated with knowledge transfer

Poor planning,
scheduling and cash flow management by Contractors

Poor communication for
quality and cost

Accidents

High legal costs and high
arbitrators fees[4].
Non-realisation of arbitral awards and court decree amounts.

 

 

Case Study: The Mumbai Monorail – An EPC Contract Model

 

Time and cost overruns in projects lead to disputes and arbitrations. A suitable example is the  Mumbai Monorail which has entered disputes and arbitration between the Contractor and the Authority over its project cost[9]. The development authority MMRDA entered into a contract with L&T Scomi Engineering for the construction of the Mumbai Monorail project. The original project cost between the Private Party Investors and the Authority was estimated to be Rs 2,700 crore, after which disputes arose. The Authority had claims against the Contractor for not completing the project task on time. The arguments of the Contractor pertained to the cost escalations caused by delays due to the fault of the Authority.  In 2019, the Bombay High Court appointed an arbitrator to settle the dispute. Currently, the dispute is still in the arbitration stage. Furthermore, post-December 2018, the MMRDA had taken over the Operation and Maintenance of the Mumbai Monorail project from L&T Scomi Engineering. Due to the Make in India policy, the tenders for manufacturing of the Mumbai Monorail were altered to encourage manufacturers and Indian technology partners to participate and fulfil the demands of manufacturing the additional monorail rakes[10]. Among other issues currently plaguing the Mumbai Monorail project, such as unavailability of a sufficient number of rakes to keep the services running and an inadequate number of spare parts, the widening deficit between revenue and O&M costs, remains primary.   

   

Way Forward

 

As per the report by the Ministry of Statistics cited above, the reason for cost and time overruns can be largely attributed to the state-wise lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been causing great hindrance to the implementation of infrastructure projects. Time and cost overruns in projects lead to disputes and arbitrations. Furthermore, in the procurement stage of projects, biddings in India happen with the project sponsor underbidding for the project so as to survive the competitive market. However, the underbidding combined with lack of margin included in the overall costs by contractors or sponsors often overlook inevitable hidden and unforeseeable costs which in turn enhance the final costs of the project. For instance, the Mumbai-Monorail project is a classic example of cost overrun. The solution would be to have a clear understanding of the project agreements, risks involved in the project particularly the conditions of force majeure, an objective evaluation of project cost while bidding taking into account uncertainties relating to raw material procurement, labour laws, land acquisition and risks related to cost and time overruns due to decisions of the awarding authority or public policy or any of the factors described above. The compensation clauses should be coherent and unambiguous, and in line with actual project cost incurred in the project leaving less scope for future disputes and arbitrations. Furthermore, it would be useful for the contractors / concessionaires , while making claims in an infrastructure project, to do it in a timely manner while maintaining clear and systematic evidentiary documentation, to substantiate the claims that may have arisen during the course of the project.

References: 

[1] http://www.cspm.gov.in/english/flr/FR_Mar_2021.pdf

[2] Finance Minister Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman releases Report of the Task Force on National Infrastructure Pipeline for 2019-2025, dated 31 December 2019, Press Information Bureau, pib.gov.in (2019), https://pib.gov.in/Pressreleaseshare.aspx?PRID=1598055 (last visited Sep 17, 2021).

[3] Forecasting Infrastructure Investment Needs and gaps, Global Infrastructure Outlook – A G20 INITIATIVE, https://outlook.gihub.org/ (last visited Sep 17, 2021).

[4] 422nd Flash Report on Central Sector Projects (Rs.150 Crore and Above), March 2021, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation Infrastructure and Project Monitoring Division (2021), Available at: http://www.cspm.gov.in/english/flr/FR_Mar_2021.pdf (last visited Sep 17, 2021)

[5] Joseph Mante, Issaka Ndekugri & Nii Ankrah, Resolution of Disputes Arising From Major Infrastructure Projects In Developing Countries Fraunhofer, https://www.irbnet.de/daten/iconda/CIB_DC24504.pdf (last visited Sep 17, 2021).

[6] Make in India Initiative, Government of India.

[7] Sandeep Shrivastava and Abdol Chini M.E. Rinker Sr., Construction Materials and C&D Waste in India, School of Building Construction University of Florida, USA, https://www.irbnet.de/daten/iconda/CIB14286.pdf (last visited Sep 17, 2021).

[8] Amendments to the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, August 2014, Law Commission of India, Report No.246.

[9] Larsen and Toubro Limited Scomi Engineering BHD vs. Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority MANU 2018 SC 1151, Arbitration Petition (C) No. 28 OF 2017.

[10]Adimulam, S. (2021, March 2). Mumbai: Monorail rakes will be made in India. Mumbai. Retrieved September 17, 2021, from https://www.freepressjournal.in/mumbai/mumbai-monorail-rakes-will-be-made-in-india.

 

 

Image Credits: Photo by Wade Austin Ellis on Unsplash

The solution would be to have a clear understanding of the project agreements, risks involved in the project particularly the conditions of force majeure, an objective evaluation of project cost while bidding taking into account uncertainties relating to raw material procurement, labour laws, land acquisition and risks related to cost and time overruns due to decisions of the awarding authority or public policy or any of the factors described above.

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Architectural Design Copyright: Analyzing Strategic Trolling in Light of the Design Basics Judgement

Like any other form of creative works of expression, copyright protection was extended to work of architectural design keeping in mind the creative labour that goes into the production of such works and to protect the legitimate interest of such bona fide authors. However, there have been instances where copyright owners have made their revenue model to indulge in the scheme of copyright trolling.

 

Copyright trolling is a scenario where creators of copyrighted work enforce their work with the hopes of profiting from favorable infringement enforcement lawsuits.

This article analyses one such US case which was an appeal in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal i.e., Design Basics, LLC v. Signature Construction[1] that addressed the question of copyright protection over architectural designs and its alleged infringement by a subsequently developed floor plan. The article also touches upon the Indian intellectual property laws that deal with copyright protection of architectural designs.

Background of the Design Basics Case

The Appellant had received copyright registration over series of its floor plans and sued Defendant for alleged infringement of ten of its floor plans. In response, the Defendants moved for summary judgment, wherein the lower court, while dismissing the Appellant’s claim of infringement ruled that the Appellant’s copyright protection in its floor plan was ‘thin’ and only a ‘strikingly similar’ plan could give rise to an infringement claim. The Appellant’s appeal against the Summary Judgement met with the same fate as the seventh circuit court, re-affirmed the position taken by the lower court for reasons explained herein in greater detail. While doing so, the court came down heavily on the Appellant i.e., Design Basics, LLC., a home design company, for its floor plan-based copyright trolling scheme that it had utilized to file over a hundred copyright cases, including the present one, in federal courts that had resulted in thousands of victims paying license/settlement fees.

Test of Similarity: Independent Creation or Unlawful Copying   

In the present case, the copyright protection was hailed as a thin one, as the designs mostly consisted of unprotectable and basic elements – a few bedrooms, a large common living room, kitchen, etc. The Court reiterated the fact that “copying” constitutes two separate scenarios – Whether the defendant has, rather than creating it independently, imitated it in toto and whether such copying amounts to wrongful copying or unlawful appropriation. For instance, in the present case, much of the Appellant’s content related to functional considerations and existing design conventions for affordable, suburban, single-family homes. In such a case, to give rise to a potential copyright infringement claim, only a “strikingly similar” subsequent work would suffice.

Determining the Piracy: A Circumstantial Scenario

The Seventh Circuit explained that in absence of evidence of direct copying, the circumstantial evidence should be taken into consideration. To bring a case under this limb, one had to identify whether there was access to the plaintiff’s work by the creators of the subsequent work and if so, then, whether there exists a substantial similarity between the two works. The substantial similarity should not only be limited to the protective elements of the plaintiff’s work but also, any other similarity.

The court in this case used the term “probative similarity” when referring to actual copying and “substantial similarity” when referring to unlawful appropriation. In a case of thin copyright protection, a case of unlawful appropriation requires more than a substantial similarity. Only if a subsequent plan is virtually identical to the original work, it will cause an infringement.

The utility aspect: The Brandir analogy

For instance, if a particular type of architectural detailing is a significant feature of an organization, so much so that it creates an imprint on the minds of the target consumers that such a style is attributable to the Appellant, is that design/style copyrightable? To answer this question the case of Brandir International, Inc. v. Cascade Pacific Lumber Co[2], must be taken into consideration, where the court stated that “if design elements reflect a merger of aesthetic and functional considerations, the artistic aspects of a work cannot be said to be conceptually separable from the utilitarian elements. Conversely, where design elements can be identified as reflecting the designer’s artistic judgment exercised independently of functional influences, conceptual separability exists.

The rule of law, as evidenced from the above precedent states that the copyrightability of work ultimately depends upon the extent to which the work reflects artistic expression and is not restricted by functional considerations. Hence, while considering designs, which have a particular utility in the minds of the customers, the artistic part should be considered separately from the utilitarian part, as, the Copyright Act clearly states that the legal test lies in how the final article is perceived and not how it has evolved at the various stages along the way. Any similarity in the end-product when taken as a whole should be considered.

The Ideal Test(s) for Determination of Ingringement: Scènes à Faire and Merger Doctrine

The determination of piracy and subsequently the legitimacy of a copyright claim has seen a sharp change over a period. There has been a change in the stance of the courts from the Sweat of the Brow system to the Originality Test. Where the former absolved a defendant from a copyright infringement claim based on the evaluation of substantial labour in the development of the subsequent work, without taking into consideration the amount of overlap or the quality of such work, the latter absolved the author of a subsequent work from a potential copyright infringement claim if his work (the subsequent work) enshrines an adequate amount of creativity and diligence.

An extension of the Originality doctrine is seen in a Scene A Faire scenario, which states that when certain similarities are non-avoidable, what needs to be determined is if the depiction pertains to certain things which are extremely common to a particular situation, for e.g., the depiction of police life in the South Bronx will definitely include “drinks, prostitutes, vermin and derelict cars.”[3] Hence, such depictions do not come under the realm of copyright protection.[4]

The court adopted the same analogy in the present scenario, stating that the rooms in the Appellant’s floor plans were rudimentary, commonplace, and standard, largely directed by functionality. For example, the placement of the bedroom, hall, and kitchen did not show an extraneous unique expression of an idea. Hence, they constituted of a scene a faire scenario, which could not be protected.

Expressions and not ideas are protectable. The doctrine of merger prevents the protection of underlying ideas. However, if certain ideas can only be expressed in multiple ways, copyrighting each expression would end up in copyrighting the idea itself, which would run counter to the very basis of copyright protection. Similarly, where the Appellant is the owner of 2500+ floor plans, is it possible for any other Appellant to design a suburban single-family home that is not identical to at least one of these plans?

The court answered in negative and held that if the copyright infringement claim of the Appellant was allowed to succeed, then it would own nearly the entire field of suburban, single-family type homes, which would be a result of anti-competitive practice. Hence, the present plea was not allowed.

A Classic Case of Copyright Trolling

The court called this instance a classic case of a copyright troll. This was because Design Basics, as a matter of practice, had registered copyrights in over thousands of floor plans for single-family tract type suburban homes, which they used for attacking several smaller businesses, using their employees to spawn through the internet in search of targets and slapping on them strategic infringement suits in which the merits were always questionable. This fueled their agenda in securing “prompt settlements with defendants who would prefer to pay modest or nuisance settlements rather than be tied up in expensive litigation.”

The Indian Position on Protection of Architectural Design

Even though courts in India have not taken a similar stand on copyright protection over architectural work yet, a similarly high threshold of originality for protection and enforcement of such works stems from the Copyright Act, 1957 (“the Act”) as well as the Designs Act, 2000. Section 2(b) of the Act defines ‘work of architecture’ as: “any building or structure having an artistic character or design, or any model for such building or structure.”, and Section 2(c)(ii) includes work of architecture under the ambit of artistic work.

Additionally, Section 59 of the Act, restricts remedies in case of “works of architecture” which states that where construction of a building or other structure which infringes or which, if completed would infringe the copyright in some other work has been commenced, the owner of the copyright shall not be entitled to obtain an injunction to restrain the construction of such building or structure or order its demolition. The owner of the copyrighted building cannot claim specific relief and the only remedy available to the copyright owner will be damages and criminal prosecution.

The law corresponding to this is Section 2(d) of the Designs Act, 2000 which allows for designs of buildings to be registered. This provision may prove to be more useful as it allows for mass production of the designs registered under the Designs Act. As for Copyright protection, if a design has been registered under the Copyright Act, as well as the Designs Act, then the copyright ceases to exist if the design is commercially reproduced or reproduced more than fifty times.

Thus, the Copyright Act purports to provide protection to very special architectural works which have an artistic element to them and are not mass-produced to protect the artistic integrity of the work. Hence, commercial rights of architectural work are better protected under the Designs Act which allows for the reproduction of the design multiple times.

Analysis and Conclusion

The Appellate court in the present case concluded that apart from the marking up of the Design Basics floor plan by Signature, there was no evidence of actual copying. Even under the test for circumstantial proof of actual copying, there existed many noteworthy differences between the two works, for instance, the room dimensions, ceiling styles, number of rooms, and exterior dimensions were all different enough to preclude an inference of actual copying as a matter of law. Even though the two plans were similar, they differed in many aspects. Hence, the copyright infringement claim could not subsist.

The United States’ Modicum of Creativity approach is a modern proliferation of the originality test, which delves into the thought process and the judgment involved behind the formulation of subsequent work.[5] However, using this approach in isolation is not enough. Whether the subsequent work is the result of a thought process and adequate judgment should be determined after passing it through the ‘Nichols Abstraction’ test. The Seventh Circuit decision was largely based on the Nichols Abstraction test[6] which narrows down to the product that remains after filtering out all the dissimilarities. The residual product, in this case, that remained after filtering out all the dissimilarities between the two was the main idea behind the works and ideas are not protectable and hence a case of infringement could not be made out.

Copyright trolling is more common in countries that provide escalated damages for infringement and there it needs to be addressed in a stricter manner. In 2015 alone, trolls consumed a whopping 58% of the US federal copyright docket. Clearly, the judiciary plays a very important role in sorting out a troll from a genuine copyright claim. Moreover, the litigation process needs to be cost-effective, which may enable defendants to dispute the claims of a copyright troll more easily. Hence, proper care and caution must be taken while meandering through the trolls.

References: 

[1] Case No. 19-2716 (7th Cir. Apr. 23, 2021)

[2] 200 (2d Cir. N.Y. Dec. 2, 1987)

[3] David Nimmer, Nimmer on Copyright Vol III, (1963).

[4] http://blog.ciprnuals.in/2021/06/from-sweat-of-the-brow-to-nichols-abstraction-a-revisitation-of-the-r-g-anand-precedent-with-its-mature-modern-implications/

[5] Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Telephone Service Co., 499 U.S. 340 (1991).

[6] Nichols v. Universal Pictures Corp., 45 F.2d 119 (2d Cir. 1930)

 

 

Image Credits: Photo by Sora Shimazaki from Pexels

Copyright trolling Is more common in countries that provide escalated damages for infringement and there it needs to be addressed in a stricter manner. In 2015 alone, trolls consumed a whopping 58% of the US federal copyright docket. Clearly, the judiciary plays a very important role in sorting out a troll from a genuine copyright claim.

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Bad Bank in India: A Concept Note

The Indian banking system has been grappling with the ballooning Non-Performing Assets (NPAs) crisis on its balance sheets for decades now. The pandemic marked a further downward spiral for the Indian economy; proving specifically detrimental to individual borrowers and large corporates across sectors, who were adversely affected by the cash flow in businesses which led to defaults in outstanding obligations. The consequential increase in the NPAs revived the discussions for institutionalizing an independent entity that would exclusively deal with the bad loans and help in cleaning up the NPAs off the balance sheets. As of March 2021, the total NPAs in the banking system amounted to Rs 8.35 lakh crore (approx). According to the Reserve Bank of India’s (RBI) financial stability report, the gross NPAs ratio for the banking sector could rise to 9.8% by March 2022.

Following India’s first-ever Bad Bank announcement in the 2021-22 Union Budget by the Finance Minister; India, Debt Resolution Company Ltd (“IDRCL”), an Asset Management Company (“AMC”) has been set up that shall work in tandem with the National Asset Reconstruction Company Ltd (“NARCL”) to streamline and square away bad loans as per the documents and data available with the Registrar of Companies (“RoC”).

Proposed Mechanism of Bad Bank in India

  • The Government of India (“GOI”) has primarily set up two entities to acquire stressed assets from banks and then sell them in the market.
  • The NARCL has been incorporated under the Companies Act, 2013. NARCL will buy stressed assets worth INR 2 lakh crore from banks in phases and sell them to buyers of distressed debt. NARCL shall also be responsible for the valuation of bad loans to determine the price at which they will be sold. Public Sector Banks (PSBs) will jointly own 51% in NARCL.
  • The IDRCL will be an operational entity wherein 51% ownership will be of private-sector lenders / commercial banks, while the PSBs shall own a maximum of 49%.

NARCL will purchase bad loans from banks and shall pay 15% of the agreed price in cash, and the remaining 85% in the form of Security Receipts. If the bad loans remain unsold, the government guarantee shall be invoked; a provision worth INR 30,600 crore has been structured for the same.

Benefits of Bad Bank in India

Since non-performing assets have majorly impacted Public Sector Banks, the institutionalization of a Bad Bank shall equip PSBs in selling / transferring the NPAs, while simultaneously improving and promoting credit quality, strategically minimizing efforts in loan recovery and enhancing the macroeconomy.

Additionally, the profits of the banks were mostly utilized to cut losses. With the NPAs off their balance sheets, the banks will have more capital to lend to retail borrowers and large corporates.

The issues faced by Asset Reconstruction Companies (ARCs) relating to the governance, acceptance of deep discount on loans, and valuation may not concern the Bad Bank, owing to the government’s initiative and support that engages appropriate expertise.

 

Challenges of Bad Bank

As per the operational structure, bad banks shall buy bad loans, that have been recorded in the books of the PSB’s or private lenders. If the institution fails to secure buyers and record appropriate prices for the assets, the entire exercise shall prove to be futile.

In India, 75% of the bad loans are defaulted corporate loans, including a consortium of banks that had loaned corporations to finance major infrastructure and industrial projects. Countries such as Mexico, Greece, South Korea, Argentina, and Italy have portrayed that bad banks rarely yield positive outcomes in settings dominated by industrial, corporate, and conglomerate-level bad loans. Hence, structural and governance issues at various levels with state governments, judiciary, and political interests shall have to be streamlined and implemented efficiently to steer away from making them a repository of bad loans and for cleaning up the books of the PSBs.

Bad Bank: A One-Time Exercise?

The Government of India will have to undertake appropriate reforms/lending norms to reduce the number of NPAs. Setting up Bad Bank is most likely to tackle only the existing NPAs problem and should be a one-time exercise.

The concept of Bad Bank has been a success in certain European countries and the United States of America, however, it is pertinent to understand that they were structured to tackle home loans and toxic mortgages, unlike in India. Hence, in-depth analysis of the experiences of these countries should be utilized and intricately be revamped in alignment with key differences to ascertain the role of Bad Bank in the near future in the country.

Banks will get a huge financial boost with the transfer of the NPAs off their books and help in credit growth in the country. The success of Bad Bank is also crucial in restoring the faith of the taxpayer in the banking system. With the existence of the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 and Securitisation and Reconstruction of Financial Assets and Enforcement of Securities Interest Act, 2002, it remains to be seen how a Bad Bank will be a complement in the resolution of the bad loans.

 

Image Credits: Photo by Visual Stories || Micheile on Unsplash

The concept of Bad Bank has been a success in certain European countries and the United States of America, however, it is pertinent to understand that they were structured to tackle home loans and toxic mortgages, unlike in India. Hence, in-depth analysis of the experiences of these countries should be utilized and intricately be revamped in alignment with key differences to ascertain the role of Bad Bank in near future in the country.

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India Needs New Regulations - But Simplification of Compliance is Just as Critical

In earlier posts, I have touched upon the need for Indian laws to be updated to better reflect the current environment and foreseeable changes to it brought about by various forces, primarily technology-led innovation. This is not just because of the need to plug legal loopholes that are exploited to the nation’s detriment but also with the objectives of streamlining compliance and better enforcement.

 

Recently, the union government did exactly this when it announced a new set of rules to govern the operations of drones in India. A new draft of the Drone Rules, 2021, now out for public consultation, will, when approved and notified, replace the UAS Rules, 2021, which were announced in March 2021. The fact that the government has come out with a new set of rules within 4 months of issuing the earlier version is a welcome sign of change, as it signals recognition of a rapidly-changing environment as well as the importance of timely and appropriate responses.

Changes are aimed at simplification and less regulatory control

The new rules are remarkable for other reasons as well. At about 15 pages in length, the new rules are only a tenth of the earlier rules. The changes are not limited to the form; there are substantive changes too. The new rules seek to do away with a large number of approvals (e.g., Unique Authorization Number, Unique Prototype Identification Number etc.).  Licensing for micro drones for non-commercial use has been done away with. Recognizing the immense potential for drones to revolutionize our society and economy, the government proposes to develop “drone corridors” for cargo delivery. Prior authorization of drone-related R&D organizations is being removed. A drone promotion council is to be set up, in order to create a business-friendly regulatory regime that spurs innovation and use of drones. All this augurs well for the development of a robust drone ecosystem in India.

Implementing the “spirit” of underlying regulations is vital

The change to the drone rules is a welcome step- just as the consolidation of 29 of the country’s labour laws into four Codes during 2019 and 2020 was. But rationalization becomes futile if there is no element of reform- e.g., doing away with requirements that have outlived their utility or need significant changes to remain relevant in the current environment? There were many expectations around the Labour Codes, but in the months that followed, it is fair to say that there was also much disillusionment amongst industry stakeholders because sticky issues, such as the distinction between “employees” and “workers”, payment of overtime, role of facilitator-cum-inspector etc., remained.

Simplifying compliance is necessary to improve “ease of doing business” further

The World Bank’s 2020 “ease of doing business” report ranks India 63rd; we were ranked 130 in 2016. The 2020 report considered three areas: business regulatory reforms (starting a business, paying taxes, resolving insolvency etc.); contracting with the government, and employing workers. 

But there are miles to go before we sleep. To ensure that India’s entrepreneurial energies and creative intelligence are directed to areas that will be critical in the years to come- e.g., space, AI, robotics, electric vehicles, clean energy etc. all need new regulations or revamp of existing legislations and rules. But this alone will not suffice. Implementing the spirit, and not just the letter of the law and rules and the simplification of regulatory compliance are important angles that government must pay attention to. These are going to be key determinants in improving our “ease of doing business”.

 

Technology is a necessary enabler but it is not sufficient

All regulatory filings- whether for approvals or compliance- should ideally be enabled in digital format. Digital dashboards in the government and other regulatory bodies should facilitate real-time monitoring. Only exceptions or violations should need further actions. To be sure, the government has initiated some steps in this direction- e,g., “faceless” interactions between business and the Income Tax authorities with the intention to reduce human interventions and thus, the possibility of corruption. But if the underlying income tax portal itself is not working properly, as was widely reported soon after it was launched, the desired outcomes will not be achieved.

Moreover, it is not just about having the right technology platforms in place. It is equally critical to bring about a mindset change in the administrative machinery that helps political leadership formulate policy and thereafter, enable implementation and performance monitoring.

Given India’s large domestic market and attractiveness as a base for exports, we as a nation stand on the threshold of a phase of significant economic growth. Many Indian entrepreneurs are establishing businesses overseas; this means that the benefits of jobs, tax revenues and IPR creation all move to other jurisdictions. The longer anachronistic and irrelevant laws remain on our books, and the harder regulatory compliance remains, the more we stand to lose. In a world where global investment flows, trade and supply chains are facing significant change under the influence of numerous forces, it would truly be unfortunate if India loses out largely because of continued difficulties in regulatory compliance.

Image Credits: Photo by Medienstürmer on Unsplash

The longer anachronistic and irrelevant laws remain on our books, and the harder regulatory compliance remains, the more we stand to lose. In a world where global investment flows, trade and supply chains are facing significant change under the influence of numerous forces, it would truly be unfortunate if India loses out largely because of continued difficulties in regulatory compliance.

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Deduction of Tax at Source under Section 194N Restrained

The Kolkata High Court has passed an interim order restraining the deduction of tax at source under section 194N of the Income Tax Act till 30 September 2021 and directed that the matter be scheduled for final hearing after a period of eight weeks. The constitutional validity and legality of section 194N of the Act were challenged, by way of a writ petition, before Kolkata High Court in the case of Amalgamated Plantations Pvt. Ltd. & Anr.[1]

Section 194N – In Brief

The Finance Act, 2019 had inserted Section 194N under the Income-tax Act, 1961 (“the Act”), with effect from 1 September 2019, which mandates the deduction of tax at source at the rate of 2% on cash withdrawals from, inter alia, a banking company, on an amount exceeding INR 1 crore during the relevant tax year. The intention of introducing such provision under the Act was to discourage cash transactions and move towards cashless economy.

The Finance Act, 2020 substituted the above provisions to expand its scope. The revised threshold limit and rate of tax under section 194N of the Act have been summarised as follows:

Aggregate cash withdrawals in a tax year Rate of TDS
ITR of last 3 years filed ITR of last 3 years not filed
Up to INR 20 lakhs NIL NIL
Exceeds INR 20 Lakhs up to INR 1 crore NIL 2%
Exceeds INR 1 crore 2% 5%

The constitutional validity and legality of section 194N of the Act were challenged, by way of a writ petition, before Kolkata High Court in the case of Amalgamated Plantations Pvt. Ltd. & Anr.[1] (“the Petitioner”)


Is Section 194N beyond the legislative competence of the Parliament?


The Petitioner contended that the provisions of section 194N of the Act are beyond the legislative competence of the Parliament.

In this regard, the Petitioner placed reliance on Entry 82 of List I of Schedule VII of the Constitution of India, which empowers the Parliament to enact laws for imposition, collection and levy of tax on ‘income’. It was contended that the Parliament cannot legislate a provision for deduction of tax at source on an amount which is not an ‘income’.

The Petitioner further placed reliance on the decision of the Hon’ble Kerala High Court in the case of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company Pvt. Ltd[1] wherein, on a similar issue, the Kerala HC has admitted the writ petition and granted stay on deduction of tax at source under section 194N of the Act.

 

Interim Order on Section 194N

The Kolkata HC observed that the afore-mentioned order of Kerala HC has not been further challenged and the said interim order is still existing. It also observed that the Kerala HC, on the same issue, has passed series of orders admitting writ petitions and staying deduction of tax under section 194N of the Act.

Considering the above, the Kolkata HC has passed an interim order restraining the deduction of tax at source under section 194N of the Act till 30 September 2021 and directing that the matter be scheduled for final hearing after a period of eight weeks. In the interim, the Court has also directed that the Revenue authorities (“the Respondent”) and the Petitioner can file affidavit-in-opposition & reply thereof, respectively.

 

FM Comments:

The interim order of the Kolkata HC restraining the deduction of tax at source under section 194N of the Act is indeed a landmark order. The same should go a long way in deciding the constitutional validity and legality of this controversial provision in the law.

However, in the interim, it would be worthwhile to examine whether the benefit of the above order can be availed by other taxpayers at large.

At this juncture, it is also pertinent to highlight the fact that, although the intention of the legislature was to move towards a digital and cashless economy, one cannot lose sight of the fact that cash withdrawals from banks, by no stretch of imagination, can be considered, as ‘income’ earned by the recipient. As such, the collection of tax on such amounts ought to be treated as violative of the basic principles enshrined under our income-tax law.

If the issue is finally decided against the Revenue authorities, it would be an embarrassing setback vis-à-vis the Government’s significant efforts in moving towards a cashless economy.

Collection of tax on an amount that is not an ‘income’ of the recipient was an extreme step taken by the Government and going forward, more pragmatic approach may be expected to achieve the goal of a cashless and digital economy.

References:

[1] WPA 10826 of 2021

[2] WP (C) No. 1658 of 2020 dated 13/08/2020

Image Credits: Photo by Mathieu Stern on Unsplash

The Finance Act 2020 had expanded the scope of Section 194N, which earlier mandated the deduction of tax at source for cash withdrawals above a certain limit, by revising the threshold. The section has been challenged as ultra-vires. 

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PhonePe Vs. BharatPe Case: No Exclusivity Over a Part of a Mark, Not Even by Misspelling It

Registration of the (whole) mark does not confer an exclusive right over a part of a registered mark. Similarly, no exclusivity can be claimed over a descriptive mark or a descriptive part of the mark, not even by misspelling it. This was the ruling of the Delhi High Court in a recent Trademark Infringement & Passing Off matter between PhonePe Pvt. Ltd. (Plaintiff) & Ezy Services & Anr. (Defendants). Hon’ble Justice C. Hari Shankar affirmed some of the fundamental principles of the Trademark Law, which have been asserted by various Courts from time to time.
PhonePe’s Perception:

PhonePe in its plea before the Delhi High Court stated that: a consumer of average intelligence and imperfect recollection, on seeing the defendants’ mark BharatPe would immediately associate it with PhonePe.

Well, how often is our intelligence questioned and challenged, even without our knowledge? Considering the deep inroads that technology has made into our lives now, I reckon all of us are reasonably aware of the prominent digital wallets in the market. Knowing that, it is contestable how many of us would have wondered about any association between these two marks purely based on the similarity in their suffix “Pe”.

Background:

The plaintiff had filed a suit before the Delhi High Court seeking a permanent injunction and other remedies against the defendants’ use of ‘Pe’ or any deceptive mark identical and/or similar to the plaintiff’s trademark ‘PhonePe’. The plaintiff alleged that the use of the word “BharatPe” itself, infringed the plaintiff’s registered trademark and amounted to passing off.

The plaintiff in its suit claimed that “Pe” is an essential, dominant, and distinguishing feature of the plaintiff’s registered trademarks. Plaintiff further claimed that “Pe” is an invented word, not to be found in the English dictionary and when combined with “Phone”, which is an ordinary dictionary word with a well-known meaning, “Pe” becomes the dominant and essential feature of the plaintiff’s trademark “PhonePe”.

Court’s Findings and Rulings:

The Hon’ble Delhi High Court’s decision in this matter seems to be premised based on following three principles, which have already been established earlier in multiple Judgments by various Courts:

a) The Anti-Dissection Rule:
The Hon’ble High Court observed that the registered mark ought not to be dissected for the purpose of comparison with the conflicting mark. However, the Court acknowledged the exception of “dominant mark” test, under which, if any part of the plaintiff’s mark was found to be dominant, the Court was required to examine whether such dominant part of the plaintiff’s mark was infringed by the defendant’s mark.

The plaintiff contended that “PhonePe” was a combination of the words “Phone” and “Pe”, where “Phone” was a common dictionary word and the suffix “Pe” was not a dictionary word, which made it the dominant feature of the plaintiff’s trademark. Similarly, in the defendant’s trademark, the word “Bharat” was publici juris and “Pe” formed the dominant element of the mark “BharatPe”. However, the Court was not convinced on the argument and did not find “Pe” to be the dominant part, therefore, the marks were not allowed to be dissected for the comparison.

The Court ruled that while applying the above principles to the facts in hand, the following positions emerged i.e. (i) “PhonePe” and “BharatPe” were both composite marks. (ii) the marks could not be dissected into “Phone” and “Pe” in the case of the plaintiff and “Bharat” and “Pe” in the case of the defendants; and (iii) the plaintiff could not claim exclusivity over the word “Pe”, as it was merely a misspelling of the word “Pay”, hence no infringement could be claimed on the basis of part of a registered trademark.

b) Separate Registration of a Part of a Composite Mark:
The Hon’ble Court further observed that since the plaintiff did not have any registration over the suffix “Pe”, therefore, it could not claim any exclusivity on the same. As a result, the question of infringement did not arise because of the alleged similarity between the non-essential, unregistered part of the composite mark.

In the cases of South India Beverages1 and P.K. Overseas Pvt. Ltd.2, the Delhi High Court explained the relation between the anti-dissection principle and the “dominant/essential feature” principle. The division bench relied on a passage from McCarthy on Trademarks and Unfair Competition, earlier cited in the case of Stiefel Laboratories3, which stated that “The rationale for the rule is that the commercial impression of a composite trademark on an ordinary prospective buyer is created by the mark as a whole, not by its component parts. However, it is not a violation of the anti-dissection rule to view the component parts of conflicting composite marks as a preliminary step on the way to an ultimate determination of probable customer reaction to the conflicting composites as a whole”.

c) Non-exclusivity of Descriptive or Generic Marks or Parts of Marks:
The Hon’ble Court observed that a party cannot claim exclusivity over a descriptive or generic mark or a part of the mark that is considered descriptive. The Court went on to observe that the plaintiff could not claim that the mark was non-descriptive merely by misspelling the descriptive word. However, the Court admitted an exception to this principle in situations where the descriptive or generic mark had acquired distinctiveness or secondary meaning.

The Court further observed that had the plaintiff been able to establish that the word “Pe” had acquired distinctiveness and secondary meaning, it might have been able to make out a case of infringement. However, in this case, the plaintiff’s use of the mark “PhonePe” was only since 2016 and even the defendants claimed to have extensive use of their mark “BharatPe”. Therefore, the plaintiff had not been able to make out a prima facie case.

In the case of Marico Limited4, the Court dived deep into the concept of acquired secondary meaning of a descriptive mark and held that while deciding whether a descriptive mark is registrable or not the “Courts should ordinarily lean against holding distinctiveness of a descriptive trademark unless the user of such trademark is over such a long period of time of many-many years that even a descriptive word mark is unmistakably and only relatable to one source i.e. the same has acquired a secondary meaning”.
1 South India Beverages v. General Mills Marketing, AIR 1965 SC 980
2 P.K. Overseas Pvt. Ltd. v. Bhagwati Lecto Vegetarians Exports Pvt. Ltd., 2016 SCC OnLine Del 5420
3 Stiefel Laborataries v. Ajanta Pharma Ltd, 211 (2014) DLT 296
4 Marico Limited v. Agro Tech Foods Limited, 2010 (44) PTC 736 (Del.) (DB)
The Marico case also discussed the nature and character of a misspelt word when used as a trademark and held that “if partly tweaked descriptive words and expressions of English language are claimed to be coined words, the same would result in a grave and absurd situation because a non-tweaked word being a completely descriptive word will in fact be deceptively similar to the tweaked descriptive English language word or expression of which registration is obtained”.

Conclusion:

The Hon’ble Court ruled that there was no case for grant of interim injunction against the defendants. The Court observed that except the common word “Pe” (suffix) it cannot be established that the marks “PhonePe” and “BharatPe” are confusingly or deceptively similar. Barring the suffix “Pe” these are two different words altogether with no commonality whatsoever.

The important legal positions that emerge from this decision are:
(i) In accordance with the “anti-dissection” rule, it was held that the composite marks were to be considered in their entirety rather than truncating or dissecting them into individual components/elements.
(ii) The registration of a composite mark cannot confer any exclusive rights over any part of such registered mark unless otherwise, such part is the dominant part of the registered mark.
(iii) No exclusivity can be claimed, over a descriptive mark, or a descriptive part of a mark, not even by misspelling it, unless otherwise the descriptive mark or descriptive part has attained distinctiveness, or it has acquired a secondary meaning.

This case has surely reaffirmed some of the basic principles of trademark laws that prohibit adaptation and exclusive claim over descriptive and generic marks or part of the mark.
Read about the important legal positions that emerge from the PhonePe V. BharatPe decision in this article.

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CBDT notifies thresholds for determining ‘Significant Economic Presence’ in India

The concept of Significant Economic Presence (SEP) was introduced under Income-tax Act, 1961 (“the Act”) vide Finance Act, 2018, by way of insertion of Explanation 2A to section 9 of the Act, to expand the scope of the term ‘Business Connection’ and includes:

 

  • transaction in respect of any goods, services or property carried out by a non-resident with any person in India including provision of download of data or software in India, if the aggregate of payments arising from such transaction or transactions during the previous year exceeds such amount as may be prescribed; or
  • systematic and continuous soliciting of business activities or engaging in interaction with such number of users in India, as may be prescribed.

It was further provided that the transactions or activities shall constitute significant economic presence in India, whether:

 

  • the agreement for such transactions or activities is entered in India; or
  • the non-resident has a residence or place of business in India; or
  • the non-resident renders services in India.

The above-mentioned Explanation was inserted primarily for establishing Business Connection in India for Multinational entities carrying out business operations through digital means, without having any physical presence in India. However, its enforceability was deferred time and again as the discussion on this issue was ongoing under G20 – OECD BEPS project. 

Notification No 41/2021/F. No. 370142/11/2018-TPL on Significant Economic Presence in India:

 

The Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT), vide its notification dated 3 May 2021[1] has stipulated Rule 11UD to prescribe the ‘revenue’ and ‘users’ threshold for the purpose of determining Significant Economic Presence (SEP) of a non-resident entity in India. It has come into force with effect from 1 April 2022 (i.e., Financial Year 2021-22 or Assessment Year 2022-23 onwards).

The threshold limit notified by CBDT for the purpose of SEP has been tabulated as under:

Sr. No.NatureThreshold Limit
1

Revenue threshold –

Transaction in respect of any goods, services or property carried out by a non-resident with any person in India including provision of download of data or software in India.

INR 2 crores
2

Number of users threshold –

Systematic and continuous soliciting of business activities or engaging in interaction with users in India

3 lakhs users

If either one of the above-mentioned thresholds is met by a non-resident entity, then such entity shall be deemed to have a business connection in India and accordingly would be liable to pay tax on income attributable to transactions or activities mentioned above, subject to the beneficial provisions of tax treaties, as may be applicable.

 

FM Comments:

It may be noted that this Explanation was inserted primarily with an intention to tax digital transactions which otherwise escapes tax net due to absence of physical presence in India. However, on careful reading of the provisions, it is possible to infer that SEP provisions may even cover the transactions which are carried out through non-digital means (i.e., even on ‘physical’ buying and selling of goods and services).

At this juncture, it is also imperative to mention that UN tax committee has recently approved Article 12B (Income from automated digital services) in the UN Model Tax Convention. It would be interesting to watch whether India renegotiates its tax treaties to include this Article in its tax treaties and its interplay with the SEP provisions.

Further, from a practical perspective, this provision may not have much impact on non-resident entities based out of countries with whom India has executed tax treaties, due to existence of the conventional Permanent Establishment (PE) provisions in the tax treaty, where PE exists based on the physical presence in India. It would be worthwhile to note that the provisions of section 9 of the Act does not override the provisions of tax treaty and hence unless the tax treaty is renegotiated to include provisions that are like SEP, it would not have any impact on entities based out of tax treaty countries.

Having said the above, SEP provisions could have major impact on non-resident entities based out of non-tax treaty countries as well as tax treaty countries to whom benefit under the covered tax treaty may get denied, pursuant to application of, inter alia, Article 7 – Prevention of treaty abuse of Multilateral Instrument (MLI); considering the lower threshold prescribed by CBDT, such entities may then become liable to SEP provisions and may also have to pay incremental tax in India. Additionally, those entities may then also be under obligation to undertake various tax compliances in India (such as withholding tax, filing of return of income, etc.).

The non-resident entities may face various practical challenges in determining the “revenue” and “user” thresholds and in cases where existence of Business Connection is determined based on SEP, the challenges would be in relation to attribution of profits that would be chargeable to tax in India. Accordingly, it is of paramount importance that CBDT provides adequate guidance to determine the thresholds on how the profit would be attributed to such SEP activities in India.

Last but not the least, it would be interesting to examine the interplay and co-existence or otherwise of Equalization Levy (EQL) vis-à-vis the SEP provisions. For instance, in cases where the transaction falls specifically under the EQL provisions, then such income should be exempt from tax under the provisions of the Act and accordingly the expanded scope of business connection should not apply.

The non-resident entities may face various practical challenges in determining the “revenue” and “user” thresholds and in cases where existence of Business Connection is determined based on SEP, the challenges would be in relation to attribution of profits that would be chargeable to tax in India. Accordingly, it is of paramount importance that CBDT provides adequate guidance to determine the thresholds on how the profit would be attributed to such SEP activities in India.

References

[1] Notification No 41/2021/F. No. 370142/11/2018-TPL

Image Credits: Photo by Markus Winkler from Pexels

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BigBasket Vs. Daily Basket Saga

Perils of using generic/descriptive terms as a “Trademark”

On February 21, 2021, when Ramesh Vel, the founder of a Coimbatore based startup “Daily Basket” tweeted about BigBasket’s alleged bullying through a cease & desist notice, no one ever thought that it would become such a big issue. Even before the news could spread, Daily Basket was prompt enough to create a page https://bbisabully.com/ to put forth their perspective and even posted a copy of the notice. They did not stop at this but went on to launch an online campaign #BoycottBigBasket.

This prompt and aggressive move surely garnered sympathies as well as support for Daily Basket and BigBasket was at the receiving end as it was perceived as a bully in the entire episode. Though it may not have caused any impact on BigBasket’s revenue, the Company cannot deny that the episode did put a dent in its brand reputation.

The Notice:

The cease & desist notice dated Feb 17, 2021, was sent to the startup Letsdaily India Private Limited, asking them to refrain from using the mark “Daily Basket” and any other name or a mark containing the term “Basket” and also sought Rupees Two Lakhs towards the cost of the legal notice.

Who owns/claims what?

Before analyzing the matter, let us understand the claims and ownerships over the subject marks.

Looking at the trademark database, BigBasket seems to have registered several variants of its brand “BigBasket” in various classes i.e. 29, 30, 31 & 35 (food & related goods and online marketplace). However, the record does not show or mention any use or registration of the term “Basket” by BigBasket independently.

Daily Basket claims to have started its business around August 2020 but there is no record of any trademark application/registration by them.

The term “Basket”:

Currently, there are two “Basket” marks that seem to have been registered in India; one being in Class 35 where the application is dated 2014 (appl. no. 2779571) and the other one in Class 31 where the application is dated 2017 (Appl. no. 3470365).

The mark “Daily Basket”:

With regard to the mark “Daily Basket”, currently there are 3 marks in the records of Trademark Registry in Class 35. The first “Daily Basket” mark (appl no. 1807585), which was filed way back in 2009, could not proceed to registration and the same stands abandoned.

The other “Daily Basket” mark (appl. no. 3042971), which stands “registered”, was filed in the year 2015. The third “Daily Basket” mark, which was filed in the year 2017, (app. no. 3491637) was refused registration due to various reasons including the presence of conflicting marks in the same class.

Interestingly, during the prosecution of the last two marks, the examiner did not cite “BigBasket” as a conflicting mark even though BigBasket’s trademarks were on record or registered during that period and in the same class – related to the same or similar services.

Other similar marks with prefix/suffix “Basket”:

There are over a dozen trademarks with suffix/prefix “basket” including, Oven Basket, Nature’s Basket, Ocean Basket, Fresh Basket, Health Basket etc. which appear to be in existence (registered or filed or used) on the Trademark Registry’s record as early as 1999 which is way prior to BigBasket’s coming into existence i.e., 2012.

Similarly, there are another over a dozen marks with prefix/suffix “basket” including Fbasket, EBasket, 4Basket, NutBasket, Medbasket, TekBasket, MilkBasket, Badi Basket, Aqua Basket, Pure Basket, Spin Basket, Eco Basket etc. which were registered post BigBasket’s trademark registration and most of them are in use and in relation to the goods/ services in Class 29, 30, 31 and 35.

BigBasket’s Claim – fair or unfair?

As per the cease & desist notice, BigBasket’s primary objection was over Daily Basket’s use of the term “Basket”. A simple comparison between the two marks (as shown in https://bbisabully.com/)makes it clear that there exists no similarity between the two logos. Therefore, the main issue in the subject matter was over the term “Basket”.

Without dwelling deep into the Trademark Law, which has already been done in many of the previously authored articles, it is abundantly clear that a term like “Basket” (in class 35) would be considered a descriptive mark hence non-registrable (we need not get into the nitty-gritty of how the other two “Basket” marks were registered).

Further, even though BigBasket has been threatening and opposing registration of various other marks with Prefix/Suffix “Basket”, the fact that it did not even attempt to register the mark “Basket” itself makes the strength of the contention fairly obvious.

What goes against BigBasket?

A plain reading of the cease & desist notice explains the seriousness of the matter. It is beyond anyone’s understanding how and on what ground one would claim exclusive ownership over the term “Basket” especially when a) you don’t have any registration over it; b) there are several already registered marks (similar) some of them being prior to even their commencement of business, and c) the mark being a descriptive one.

Perhaps, no one can deny the fact that BigBasket’s claims were far-fetched and demands overly ambitious. It is quite possible that they would not have been apprised with the basic principles of trademark law or rather the whole approach was very casual in nature.

It happens in many cases where the trademarks applications are opposed and users are threatened with legal notices even when there is no strong case. This is because, in India, it is not a common practice to fight back or take legal action for groundless threats.

What are the lessons learnt?

Getting involved in personal capacity must be avoided when a matter can be and should be handled by experts who know the ins and outs of the legal implications. In the instant case, the founder of Daily Basket got involved personally and used digital and social media to level allegations. The fact that BigBasket chose to respond in a clarification mode also did not go down well and the whole matter got murkier.

Had this been handled by their lawyers instead (considering the substance in the notice), it would have simply been concluded without any clamour and commotion. Involvement of founders or CEOs is advisable and welcome only in closed-door negotiations or dispute resolutions but definitely not in public forums.

Is it wise to adopt a generic mark?

Adoption and registration of generic and descriptive marks always have consequences, both in the short term as well as the long term. In the short term, it is an uphill task to get these marks registered, whereas in the long term one must keep contesting the use/registration of similar marks by third parties.

There is always a fraction of people who would advise you to adopt a generic/descriptive mark which makes the marketing team’s job much easier, but everyone does not get lucky and neither does everyone has deep pockets. The “Bookings.com” case is a good example where the matter went till US Supreme Court before the mark was registered and even then, they did not get the right to refrain others from using similar marks.

Similarly, in the recent Judgment of PhonePe Vs. BharatPe, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court asserted that no exclusivity can be claimed over a descriptive mark, or a descriptive part of the mark unless the descriptive mark or descriptive part has attained distinctiveness, i.e. it has acquired a secondary meaning.

The content of this Article does not necessarily reflect the views / position of Fox Mandal but remain solely those of the authors.

 

 

Know all about the validity of the claims made by both BigBasket and Dailybasket from a trademark registration perspective.

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