Amounts paid by Indian companies to non-resident manufacturers/suppliers for resale/use of the computer software not royalty, hence, not taxable in India: Supreme Court [Read detailed report]

Supreme Court: The 3-judge bench of RF Nariman*, Hemant Gupta and BR Gavai, JJ has held that the amounts paid by resident Indian end-users/distributors to non-resident computer software manufacturers/suppliers, as consideration for the resale/use of the computer software through EULAs/distribution agreements, is not the payment of royalty for the use of copyright in the computer software, and that the same does not give rise to any income taxable in India.

Background

The Court was hearing an appeal arising from the judgment of the High Court of Karnataka dated 15.10.2011 reported as CIT v. Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., (2012) 345 ITR 494, wherein it was held that the amounts paid by the concerned persons resident in India to non-resident, foreign software suppliers, amounted to royalty and as this was so, the same constituted taxable income deemed to accrue in India under section 9(1)(vi) of the Income Tax Act, 1961, thereby making it incumbent upon all such persons to deduct tax at source and pay such tax deductible at source [TDS] under section 195 of the Income Tax Act.

The Court grouped the appeals before it into four categories:

i) The first category dealt with cases in which computer software is purchased directly by an end-user, resident in India, from a foreign, non-resident supplier or manufacturer

ii) The second category of cases dealt with resident Indian companies that act as distributors or resellers, by purchasing computer software from foreign, non-resident suppliers or manufacturers and then reselling the same to resident Indian end-users.

iii) The third category dealt with cases wherein the distributor happens to be a foreign, non-resident vendor, who, after purchasing software from a foreign, non-resident seller, resells the same to resident Indian distributors or end-users.

iv) The fourth category dealt with cases wherein computer software is affixed onto hardware and is sold as an integrated unit/equipment by foreign, non-resident suppliers to resident Indian distributors or end-users

Scheme of Income Tax Act vis-à-vis applicability of Double Taxation Avoidance Agreements (DTAA)

The scheme of the Income Tax Act, in relation to the questions before the Court, is that for income to be taxed under the Income Tax Act, residence in India, as defined by section 6, is necessary in most cases.

Under section 5(2) of the Income Tax Act, the total income of a person who is a non-resident, includes all income from whatever source derived, which accrues or arises or is deemed to accrue or arise to such person in India during such year. This, however, is subject to the provisions of the Income Tax Act. Certain income is deemed to arise or accrue in India, under section 9 of the Income Tax Act, notwithstanding the fact that such income may accrue or arise to a non-resident outside India. One such income is income by way of royalty, which, under section 9(1)(vi) of the Income Tax Act, means the transfer of all or any rights, including the granting of a licence, in respect of any copyright in a literary work.

That such transaction may be governed by a DTAA is then recognized by section 5(2) read with section 90 of the Income Tax Act, making it clear that the Central Government may enter into any such agreement with the government of another country so as to grant relief in respect of income tax chargeable under the Income Tax Act or under any corresponding law in force in that foreign country, or for the avoidance of double taxation of income under the Income Tax Act and under the corresponding law in force in that country.

“What is of importance is that once a DTAA applies, the provisions of the Income Tax Act can only apply to the extent that they are more beneficial to the assessee and not otherwise.”

Further, by explanation 4 to section 90 of the Income Tax Act, it has been clarified by the Parliament that where any term is defined in a DTAA, the definition contained in the DTAA is to be looked at. It is only where there is no such definition that the definition in the Income Tax Act can then be applied.

The machinery provision contained in section 195 of the Income Tax Act is inextricably linked with the charging provision contained in section 9 read with section 4 of the Income Tax Act, as a result of which, a person resident in India, responsible for paying a sum of money, “chargeable under the provisions of [the] Act”, to a non-resident, shall at the time of credit of such amount to the account of the payee in any mode, deduct tax at source at the rate in force which, under section 2(37A)(iii) of the Income Tax Act, is the rate in force prescribed by the DTAA. Importantly, such deduction is only to be made if the non-resident is liable to pay tax under the charging provision contained in section 9 read with section 4 of the Income Tax Act, read with the DTAA.

When is making of copies or adaptation of a computer programme not copyright infringement?

The making of copies or adaptation of a computer programme in order to utilise the said computer programme for the purpose for which it was supplied, or to make up back-up copies as a temporary protection against loss, destruction or damage so as to be able to utilise the computer programme for the purpose for which it was supplied, does not constitute an act of infringement of copyright 54 under section 52(1)(aa) of the Copyright Act. What is referred to in section 52(1)(aa) of the Copyright Act would not amount to reproduction so as to amount to an infringement of copyright.

Section 52(1)(ad) is independent of section 52(1)(aa) of the Copyright Act, and states that the making of copies of a computer programme from a personally legally obtained copy for non-commercial personal use would not amount to an infringement of copyright. However, it is not possible to deduce from this that if personally legally obtained copies of a computer programme are to be exploited for commercial use, it would necessarily amount to an infringement of copyright.

“Section 52(1)(ad) of the Copyright Act cannot be read to negate the effect of section 52(1)(aa), since it deals with a subject matter that is separate and distinct from that contained in section 52(1)(aa) of the Copyright Act.”

Definition of Royalty in the DTAAs vis-à-vis the Income Tax Act

Under Article 12 of the India-Singapore DTAA, the term “royalties” uses the expression “means”, thereby making it exhaustive and it refers to payments of any kind that are received as a consideration for the use of or the right to use any copyright in a literary work.

As opposed to this, the definition contained in explanation 2 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Income Tax Act, is wider in at least three respects:

i. It speaks of “consideration”, but also includes a lump-sum consideration which would not amount to income of the recipient chargeable under the head “capital gains”;

ii. When it speaks of the transfer of “all or any rights”, it expressly includes the granting of a licence in respect thereof; and

iii. It states that such transfer must be “in respect of” any copyright of any literary work.

However, even where such transfer is “in respect of” copyright, the transfer of all or any rights in relation to copyright is a sine qua non under explanation 2 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Income Tax Act. In short, there must be transfer by way of licence or otherwise, of all or any of the rights mentioned in section 14(b) read with section 14(a) of the Copyright Act.

The transfer of “all or any rights (including the granting of a licence) in respect of any copyright”, in the context of computer software, is referable to sections 14(a), 14(b) and 30 of the Copyright Act. The expression “in respect of” is equivalent to “in” or “attributable to”.

“Thus, explanation 2(v) to section 9(1)(vi) of the Income Tax Act, when it speaks of “all of any rights…in respect of copyright” is certainly more expansive than the DTAA provision, which speaks of the “use of, or the right to use” any copyright.”

However, when it comes to the expression “use of, or the right to use”, the same position would obtain under explanation 2(v) of section 9(1)(vi) of the Income Tax Act, inasmuch as, there must, under the licence granted or sale made, be a transfer of any of the rights contained in sections 14(a) or 14(b) of the Copyright Act, for explanation 2(v) to apply. To this extent, there will be no difference in the position between the definition of “royalties” in the DTAAs and the definition of “royalty” in explanation 2(v) of section 9(1)(vi) of the Income Tax Act.

Conclusion

The Court held that the “person” mentioned in section 195 of the Income Tax Act cannot be expected to do the impossible, namely, to apply the expanded definition of “royalty” inserted by explanation 4 to section 9(1)(vi) of the Income Tax Act, for the assessment years in question, at a time when such explanation was not actually and factually in the statute.

“… persons are not obligated to do the impossible, i.e., to apply a provision of a statute when it was not actually and factually on the statute book.”

Hence, the distribution of copyrighted computer software, would not constitute the grant of an interest in copyright under section 14(b)(ii) of the Copyright Act, thus necessitating the deduction of tax at source under section 195 of the Income Tax Act.

The Court highlighted that the effect of section 90(2) of the Income Tax Act, read with explanation 4 thereof, is to treat the DTAA provisions as the law that must be followed by Indian courts, notwithstanding what may be contained in the Income Tax Act to the contrary, unless more beneficial to the assessee. Hence, it was held that,

“Given the definition of royalties contained in Article 12 of the DTAAs, there is no obligation on the persons mentioned in section 195 of the Income Tax Act to deduct tax at source, as the distribution agreements/EULAs in the facts of these cases do not create any interest or right in such distributors/end-users, which would amount to the use of or right to use any copyright. The provisions contained in the Income Tax Act (section 9(1)(vi), along with explanations 2 and 4 thereof), which deal with royalty, not being more beneficial to the assessees, have no application in the facts of these cases.”

[Engineering Analysis Centre of Excellence Private Limited v. Commissioner of Income Tax, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 159, decided on 02.03.2021]


*Judgment by: Justice RF Nariman

Know Thy Judge| Justice Rohinton F. Nariman

Appearances before the Court by:

For appellants: Senior Advocates Arvind Datar, Percy Pardiwala, S. Ganesh, Ajay Vohra, Preetesh Kapur and Advocates Sachit Jolly, Kunal Verma

For Revenue: Additional Solicitor General Balbir Singh

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