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Heightened Onus on Assessee to Prove Genuineness of Share Subscription Money Routed Through Web of Entities

The Hon’ble Mumbai Tribunal in the case of Leena Power Tech Engineers Pvt Ltd[1] has held that the onus (i.e. burden) is on the assessee to prove the ‘bonafides’ or ‘genuineness’ of the share application money credited in the books of accounts. The Tribunal further remarked that it would be superficial approach to examine assessee’s claim only on the basis of documents filed and overlook the unusual pattern in the documents filed by the assessee and pretend to be oblivious of the ground realities.  

Considering the fact that the monies were routed through complex web of entities, which failed to inspire any confidence about the genuineness of the investing company and made it looks like a shell company, the Tribunal upheld the additions made by the Assessing Officer (AO) in the hands of the assessee with respect to the receipt of share application money.

 

Facts – Leena Power Tech Engineer’s Pvt. Ltd.:

In the instant case, the assessee had received share application monies from Rohan Vyapar Private Limited (RVPL) and Manbhawan Commercial Pvt Ltd (MCPL). The equity shares were issued at 900% premium on the face value of Rs 10 each i.e. Rs 90 per share. The assessee had issued 3,78,290 equity shares to RVPL and accordingly received an amount aggregating to Rs 3,78,29,600. Similarly, the assessee had received an amount aggregating to Rs 4,35,00,000 from MCPL.

The case of the assessee was reopened by the Assessing Officer (‘AO’) on the basis of certain information received from the investigation wing which mentioned that the assessee has received share application money from RVPL which was subjected to routing through several layers and ultimately has its source in of huge cash deposits in one of the branches of ICICI Bank.

The transaction flow has been elaborated below for ease of reference.



Assessee’s Contentions: Relevant documentary evidence produced

The Assessee’s contentions have been summarized below:

The assessee contended that it had submitted all the relevant documentary evidence such as details of the subscribers to the share capital, share premium, bank statement, justification of share premium (computed on a scientific basis), share valuation by cash flow method, and ledger confirmation from the subscribers. The assessee further submitted that the Revenue had also issued a notice under section 133(6) of the Income-tax Act, 1961 (Act) which was duly replied along with the details of the transaction with the assessee, ledger account, return of income, audited balance sheet, etc. and accordingly it was contended that the assessee had discharged its initial onus cast upon it and now it is for the revenue authorities to prove otherwise.

It was further contended that the proviso to section 68[2] of the Act inserted with effect from 1 April 2013 cannot have retrospective operation. In this regard, reliance was placed on the ruling of Hon’ble jurisdictional High Court in the case of Gagandeep Infrastructure Pvt Ltd[3].

The Assessee further contended that the companies from which the assessee had received the share subscriptions were companies with proper net-worth and these companies were properly assessed to tax and have not been declared as shell companies by the Government or any official body and just because five levels below these companies, there are cash deposits in some bank accounts, the receipts cannot be rejected as lacking bonafide.

Accordingly, it was contended that the entries in the books of accounts of the companies subscribing to the shares cannot be brought to tax in the hands of the assessee.

Revenue’s Contentions: Assessee has failed to prove ‘Bonafides’

The primary contention of the Revenue was that the assessee has failed to prove the ‘bonafides’ of the share application money. Further, the Revenue further contended that the surrounding circumstance of the transaction clearly demonstrates that the transaction is not bonafide and the assessee is a beneficiary of a sophisticated money-laundering racket wherein the money is routed through multiple layering of accounts to the accounts of entities subscribing to the share capital of the assessee.

The Revenue further contended that it was the responsibility of the assessee to show the genuineness of the share application money received and merely producing PAN, income-tax returns, and financial statements of the subscriber do not prove that the transaction is bonafide. It was pointed out that there were hardly any overnight balances in the bank accounts of the companies subscribing to the shares of the assessee company, and all this indicates that these companies are merely conduit companies.

Issue Before the Tribunal:

The question which arose before the Tribunal was whether the learned Commissioner of Income-tax (Appeals) was justified in deleting the addition of Rs 8,13,29,600 as unexplained credit under section 68 of the Act in the hands of the assessee.

Mumbai Tribunal’s Ruling:

The Mumbai Tribunal observed and held as under:

At the outset, the Tribunal observed that there cannot be any dispute on the fundamental legal position that the onus is on the assessee to prove ‘bonafides’ or ‘genuineness’ of the share application money credited in the books of accounts and to prove the nature and source on the money to the satisfaction of the assessing officer.

The Tribunal placed reliance on the cases of Youth Construction Pvt Ltd[4], United Commercial and Industrial Co (P.) Ltd[5] & Precision Finance (P.) Ltd[6] and noted the kind of explanations which assessee is expected to provide:

  1. proof regarding the identity of the share applicants;
  2. their creditworthiness to purchase the shares; and
  3. genuineness of the transaction as a whole.

The Tribunal remarked that the onus of the assessee of explaining nature and source of credit does not get discharged merely by filing confirmatory letters, or demonstrating that the transactions are done through the banking channels, or even by filing the income tax assessment particulars.

The Tribunal further went on to add that, being a final fact-finding authority, it cannot be superficial in its assessment of the genuineness of a transaction and this call has to be taken not only in the light of the face value of the documents presented before the Tribunal but also in the light of all the surrounding circumstances, the preponderance of human probabilities and ground realities. The Tribunal placed reliance on the case of Durga Prasad More[7] wherein it was held that “If all that an assessee who wants to evade tax is to have some recitals made in a document either executed by him or executed in his favour then the door will be left wide open to evade tax. A little probing was sufficient in the present case to show that the apparent was not real. There may be a difference in subjective perception on such issues, on the same set of facts, but that cannot be a reason enough for the fact-finding authorities to avoid taking subjective calls on these aspects and remain confined to the findings on the basis of irrefutable evidence.”

The Tribunal further analyzed the financial statements of RVPL and observed that RVPL has earned only an interest income of Rs 1.13 lakhs and has not carried out any substantial activity during the relevant period. Further, the Tribunal found it difficult to believe that company handling investments in excess of Rs 10 crores and making such aggressive investments as buying shares for Rs 3.78 crores, at a huge premium of nine times the face value of shares, in the private limited and wholly unconnected companies, without any management control, will operate in such a modest manner. This defies logic and such transactions do not take place in the real-life world. The Tribunal also examined the bank account of RVPL and noted that there are series of transactions that do not inspire any confidence about the genuineness of the investing company but make it looks like a shell company acting as a conduit.

The Tribunal also observed that the entities involved in the transaction only provide different layers to the transaction and de facto hide the true investor. The assessee was also unaware of the actual beneficial investor in his company.

Additionally, the Tribunal examined, in detail, the valuation carried out by the assessee on the basis of Discounted Cash Flow (DCF) method and rejected the same thereby holding that the share premium at which the shares are issued is wholly unrealistic.   

A similar analysis was also carried out by the Tribunal with respect to another investor ‘MCPL’.

In light of the above facts and circumstances, the Tribunal rejected the assessee’s contention and held that the transactions under consideration are not ‘bonafide’ and accordingly restored the additions made by the AO.

Our Observation:

The order of the Mumbai Tribunal has, indeed, widened the scope of ‘onus’ placed on the assessee to prove the genuineness of a particular transaction. Such ‘onus’ will not be deemed to be discharged by merely filing the documents before the tax authorities, but the assessee would have to go one step further to justify the rationale of such transactions in order to prove that the transaction has not been entered as a colorable device to defraud the Revenue. The judgment further emphasizes taking a holistic view of the matter based on the surrounding circumstances rather than just relying upon the documentary evidence. Having said this, one has to keep in mind that documentary evidence will always be the primary source of substantiation of a particular transaction.

Going forward, it would be interesting to see the repercussions of this judgment and whether the other Tribunal and lower tax authorities would adopt a similar path and undertake a holistic view of the matter in order to differentiate between the apparent and the real.’

References

[1] [TS-883-ITAT-2021(Mum)]

[2] It provides that where the assessee is a company (not being a company in which the public are substantially interested), and the sum so credited consists of share application money, share capital, share premium or any such amount by whatever name called, any explanation offered by such assessee-company shall be deemed to be not satisfactory, unless— (a) the person, being a resident in whose name such credit is recorded in the books of such company also offers an explanation about the nature and source of such sum so credited; and (b) such explanation in the opinion of the Assessing Officer aforesaid has been found to be satisfactory.

 

[3] (2017) 80 taxmann.com 172 (Bom)

[4] [(2013) 357 ITR 197 (Del)]

[5] [1991] 187 ITR 596 (Cal)]

[6] [1994] 208 ITR 465 (Cal)]

[7] 1971) 82 ITR 540 (SC)

 

 

Image Credits: Photo by Nataliya Vaitkevich from Pexels

The order of the Mumbai Tribunal has, indeed, widened the scope of ‘onus’ placed on the assessee to prove the genuineness of a particular transaction. Such ‘onus’ will not be deemed to be discharged by merely filing the documents before the tax authorities, but the assessee would have to go one step further to justify the rationale of such transactions in order to prove that the transaction has not been entered as a colorable device to defraud the Revenue.

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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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