Friday, 8 October 2010

VAT and EMI's CD samples for pluggers: final ruling good news for recording companies

On 30 September the Court of Justice of the European Union gave its ruling in Case C‑581/08 EMI Group Ltd v The Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, on a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union for a preliminary ruling from the London VAT and Duties Tribunal on Article 5(6) of the Sixth VAT Directive. This provides:
"The application by a taxable person of goods forming part of his business assets for his private use or that of his staff, or the disposal thereof free of charge or more generally their application for purposes other than those of his business, where the value added tax on the goods in question or the component parts thereof was wholly or partly deductible, shall be treated as supplies made for consideration. However, applications for the giving of samples or the making of gifts of small value for the purposes of the taxable person’s business shall not be so treated".
EMI, a company engaged in music publishing and in the production and sale of recorded music, distributed free copies of music recordings on vinyl records, cassette tape and compact discs to various persons in order to promote newly released music. EMI maintained that such distribution was necessary for its business, since it enabled the company to assess the commercial quality of a recording as well as its viability in the marketplace. Part of its promotion strategy was to distribute CDs to individuals who were in a position to influence consumer behaviour (such as individuals working in the press, radio stations, television programmes, advertising agencies, retail outlets and cinemas), and to 'pluggers' -- music promoters who distribute CDs to their own contacts. EMI hired both internal pluggers and external pluggers on the basis of their expertise or success in promoting recordings.

For those purposes, EMI supplies recorded music in different forms: ‘watermarked’ compact disc recordables (‘CDRs’) bearing the name of the recipient and allowing any copies made to be traced back to the recipient; un‑watermarked CDRs supplied in a white cardboard sleeve; ‘sampler’ CDs supplied in a cardboard sleeve bearing the same artwork as on the finished album; or ‘finished stock’ CDs in their definitive form ready for sale to the public. The latter bore a sticker stating ‘Promotional Copy Not For Resale’; the others stated that ownership and title remained vested in Virgin Records Limited, a subsidiary recording label of EMI. The ‘finished stock’ was given to artists, their management and publishers, agents and any other media contacts whom EMI felt it necessary to have the finished product. Around 90% of promotional CDs were sent to named individuals, with some recordings also being sent individually to more than one person working for a single organisation. For any given single release, around 2,500 free copies were distributed (3,000 to 3,750 for albums). A single plugger might receive up to 600 free recordings for onward distribution. These figures are trivial, given that a top-selling CD album may sell millions of copies.

From April 1987 until early 2003 EMI accounted for VAT on these recordings. Thereafter, taking the view that the national legislation was incompatible with Article 5(6) of the Sixth Directive and that, as a consequence, no VAT was payable, EMI requested the Commissioners for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to pay it all back. The Commissioners said "no", so EMI sued them. The Commissioners then asked EMI to pay the VAT it refused to pay from 2003. The London VAT and Duties Tribunal then referred to the Court of Justice the following questions for a preliminary ruling:
"(a) How is the last sentence of Article 5(6) of the Sixth Directive to be interpreted in the context of the circumstances of the present case?

(b) In particular, what are the essential characteristics of a “sample” within the meaning of the last sentence of Article 5(6) of the Sixth Directive?

(c) Is a Member State permitted to limit the interpretation of “sample” in the last sentence of Article 5.6 of the Sixth Directive to

(i) an industrial sample in a form not ordinarily available for sale to the public given to an actual or potential customer of the business (until 1993),

(ii) only one, or only the first of a number of samples given by the same person to the same recipient where those samples are identical or do not differ in any material respect from each other (from 1993)?

(d) Is a Member State permitted to limit the interpretation of “gifts of small value” in the last sentence of Article 5.6 of the Sixth Directive in such a way as to exclude

(i) a gift of goods forming part of a series or succession of gifts made to the same person from time to time (to October 2003),

(ii) any business gifts made to the same person in any [twelve] month period where the total cost exceeds £50 (October 2003 onwards)?

(e) If the answer to question (c)(ii) above or any part of question (d) above is “yes”, where a taxable person gives a similar or identical gift of recorded music to two or more different individuals because of their personal qualities in being able to influence the level of exposure the artist in question receives, is the Member State permitted to treat those items as given to the same person solely because those individuals are employed by the same person?

(f) Would the answers to questions (a) to (e) above be affected by the recipient being, or being employed by, a fully taxable person, who would be (or would have been) able to deduct any input tax payable on the provision of the goods consisting of the sample?"
The Court, following the sympathetic tack taken by the Advocate General, has ruled that samples may be outside the scope of VAT even if they take a form that can be finally consumed, even though Member States may require distributors to take certain precautions against final consumption. The VAT exemption is not limited to the first sample given to each recipient either: even substantial numbers of samples given to a single recipient (which may include an intermediary) may be outside the scope of VAT if this is necessary to meet promotional aims.  As for small gifts, the UK's cap of £50 per person per annum was not inconsistent with EU law -- but the presumption that all gifts made to different individuals are in fact made to their common employer is contrary to EU law since each case must be determined on its facts.  To quote the ruling in full:
"1. A ‘sample’, within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 5(6) ... is a specimen of a product which is intended to promote the sales of that product and which allows the characteristics and qualities of that product to be assessed without resulting in final consumption, other than where final consumption is inherent in such promotional transactions. That term cannot be limited, in a general way, by national legislation to specimens presented in a form which is not available for sale or to the first of a series of identical specimens given by a taxable person to the same recipient, unless that legislation allows account to be taken of the nature of the product represented and of the specific business context of each transaction in which those specimens are distributed.

2. The concept of ‘gifts of small value’, within the meaning of the second sentence of Article 5(6) ... must be interpreted as not precluding national legislation which fixes a monetary ceiling of the order of that established by the legislation at issue in the main proceedings, namely GBP 50, for gifts made to the same person in the course of a 12‑month period or forming part of a series or succession of gifts.

3. The second sentence of Article 5(6) ... precludes national legislation which establishes a presumption that goods constituting ‘gifts of small value’ within the meaning that provision, distributed by a taxable person to different individuals having the same employer, are to be treated as having been made to the same person.

4. The tax status of the recipient of samples has no bearing on the answers given to the other questions."
I'm not too sure what part is played by the giving of samples in a recording industry which is increasingly dominated by downloads -- but this ruling at least gives some historically profitable businesses a chance to recoup some of the VAT they've paid.

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