Austria vs S GmbH, November 2020, Verwaltungsgerichtshof, Case No Ra 2019/15/0162-3

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S GmbH was an Austrian trading company of a group. In the course of business restructuring, the real estate division of the Austrian-based company was initially separated from the “trading operations/brands” division on the demerger date of 31 March 2007. The trademark rights remained with the previous trading company, which was the parent company of the group, now M GmbH.

On 25 September 2007, M GmbH transferred all trademark rights to a permanent establishment in Malta, which was set up in the same year, to which it also moved its place of management on 15 January 2008. Licence agreements were concluded between S GmbH and M GmbH, which entitle S GmbH to use the trademarks of M GmbH for advertising and marketing measures in connection with its business operations in return for a (turnover-dependent) licence fee.

The tax authorities (re)assessed the corporate income tax for the years 2008 and 2009. The audit had shown that the licence fees were to be attributed in their entirety to S GmbH as the beneficial owner of the trade marks, which meant that the licence payments to M GmbH were also not to be recognised for tax purposes.

S GmbH had created the trademark rights, which had been valued at a total value of €383.5 million in the course of its spin-off; the decisions regarding the use, creation, advertising and licensing of the trademark rights continued to lie with the decision-makers of the operational company advertising the revisions at the Austrian group location. The Maltese management was present at meetings with advertising agencies in Austria, but its activities did not actually go beyond support and administration. The aim of the chosen structure had been a tax-saving effect, whereby the actual taxation of the licence income in Malta had been 5%.

A complaint filed by S GmbH was dismissed by the Bundesfinanzgericht. S GmbH then filed an appeal with the Verwaltungsgerichtshof.

Judgement of the Court

The Court dismissed the appeal of S GmbH and upheld the decision of the tax authorities

Excerpts:
“In the appeal case, the BFG found that the trademark rights had been created before the separation of the companies. No new trademarks had been registered during the audit period. The advertising line was determined by a two-year briefing of the group and was based on the requirements of the licensees. The brand managers of M GmbH participated in the process, but the decisions were made by the organs of the appellant, which spent over €56 million in 2008 and almost €68 million in 2009 on advertising and marketing.. In contrast, M GmbH had hardly incurred any advertising expenses, and its salary expenses were also disproportionate to the tasks of a company that was supposed to manage corporate assets of almost €400 million in trademark rights and to act as the (also economic) owner of these assets. The minimal salary expenditure, which amounted to a total of € 91,791.0 in 2008 and € 77,008.10 in 2009 and was distributed among eight persons (most of whom were part-time employees), could only be explained by the fact that all relevant trademark administration, maintenance and management tasks were, as in the past, handled either by group companies (by way of group-internal marketing activities) or by specialists commissioned by the group (trademark lawyer, advertising agency) and that M GmbH only acted in a supporting capacity.
If, against this background, the BFG assumes, despite the formal retention of the legal ownership of the trademark rights, that the economic ownership of the trademark rights, which had already been created at that time, was also transferred to the appellant at the time of the spin-off, this cannot be seen as an unlawful act which the Administrative Court should take up.
If, in the case at hand, the appellant nevertheless concluded licence agreements with M GmbH, the reason for this cannot have been the acquisition of the right of use to which it was entitled from the outset as the beneficial owner. The BFG was therefore correct in denying that the amounts paid by the appellant under the heading of “licence payments” were business expenses.
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