In 2016 the British company Avon Cosmetics Limited (ACL) became the sole licensor of intellectual property rights for Europe, Africa and the Middle East within the Avon Cosmetics Group and was authorised to issue sub-licences to other group companies, including the Czech subsidiary, Avon Cosmetics spol. s r.o..
ACL charged a fee for issuing a sub-licence equal to an agreed-upon percentage of net sales but was then contractually obliged to pay a similar fee to the US companies, Avon Products Inc. and Avon Internetional Operations Inc. ACL applied for relief from WHT on the royalty payments from the Czech subsidiary.
The tax authorities concluded that ACL was not the beneficial owner of the royalty income but only an conduit or intermediary. The legal conditions for granting the exemption were not met. ACL did not obtain any real benefit from the royalty fees and was not authorised to freely decide on use of the income as it was contractually obliged to pay on a similar amount to the US companies. On that basis the application for relief was denied.
An appeal was filed by ACL.
Judgement of the Municipal Court
The court upheld the decision of the tax authorities and dismissed the appeal of ACL.
“In accordance with the Czech statutory framework enshrined in the Income Tax Act and also with EU legislation, namely Council Directive 2003/49/EC, which is implemented into Czech law by the Income Tax Act, a beneficial owner is not an entity which receives royalty payments for another person as an intermediary. Thus, the real owner of the said income must be the entity whose income increases its assets and enriches it. The beneficial owner uses the income without restriction and does not pass it on, even in part, to another person. The Court of Justice of the European Union came to the same conclusion in its judgment of 26 February 2019 in Joined Cases C-115/16, C-118/16, C-119/16 and C-299/19, where it stated that ‘The concept of “beneficial owner of interest” within the meaning of the Directive must therefore be interpreted as referring to the entity which actually benefits from the interest paid to it. Article 1(4) of the same directive supports that reference to economic reality by specifying that a company of a Member State is to be regarded as the beneficial owner of interest or royalties only if it receives them for itself and not for another person as an intermediary, such as an agent, trustee or principal’, to which the applicant referred in its application. The Supreme Administrative Court also commented on this issue in its decision of 12 November 2019, No. 10 Afs 140/2018-32, where it stated that “The recipient of (sub)royalties is the beneficial owner of the royalties only if he can use and enjoy them without limitation and is not obliged by law or contract to pass the payments to another person (Article 19(6) of Act No. 586/1992 Coll., on Income Taxes)”. Although the applicant refers to those decisions in support of its argument, in the Court’s view those decisions support the interpretation relied on by the defendant and the court in this case. Nowhere in the reasoning of the decisions does it appear that the applicant’s conclusion, which is strongly simplistic, is that the only criterion is whether the recipient of the royalties has an obligation to pass them on to another person.”
“In so far as the applicant argues that it exercised other rights and obligations vis-à-vis the individual local companies after taking over the licence rights, which also involved the applicant’s liability for the acts and omissions of the sub-licence holders, and that it is not merely a ‘flow-through’ company, and then ties its argumentation to a possible abuse of rights, the Court observes that the above-mentioned decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union cannot be interpreted as meaning that, unless an abuse of rights is proved, the defendant is obliged to grant the applicant an exemption from royalty tax. Both the law and the above-mentioned case-law define the concept of beneficial owner, which the applicant has failed to prove in the proceedings (the Court refers in detail to the detailed reasoning of the contested decision). Thus, it is not relevant whether the applicant legitimately carries on an economic activity in the more general sense or whether it receives royalties on its own account, but whether it is the beneficial owner of the royalties (it benefits from them itself), which are two different facts. It is therefore relevant to the assessment of the case what the nature of the applicant’s activity is, not whether an abuse of rights is established. In the Court’s view, the applicant’s activity does not satisfy the condition of beneficial owner of the royalties as defined by the case-law referred to above.”
“The applicant further points out that it collects royalties from Avon Cosmetics spol. s r.o. in the amount of xxxxx % of net sales for the grant of the sub-licence, whereas it only pays to Avon Products Inc. and Avon International Operations Inc. an amount equivalent to xxxxx % of net sales. In assessing this point of claim, the Court agrees with the defendant, which concludes that the applicant does not derive any real benefit from the royalty income and is not entitled to take a free decision on it, since it is obliged to pay almost all of it to the above-mentioned companies. That conclusion is also supported by other facts on which the defendant bases its conclusion, which are based on the contractual documentation submitted and with the assessment of which the Court agrees (e.g. the payability of the royalty received and the sub-licence fee paid, which is set at a similar level; the fact that ownership of the property rights remains with Avon Products Inc. and Avon International Operations Inc., which, moreover, have reserved the right to carry out inspections not only of the applicant but also of the sub-licence holders). What is relevant for this assessment is not the determination of the applicant’s income from which it pays royalties to Avon Products Inc. and Avon International Operations Inc., but the fact that the applicant receives royalties in a fixed amount from net sales and is then contractually obliged to remit part of those payments to other companies. The difference between the payments of xxxxx % which remains to the applicant cannot then be regarded as royalty income in that factual situation, but only as remuneration for the management of the royalties collected by the applicant for Avon Products Inc. and Avon International Operations Inc., when otherwise the applicant is contractually obliged to remit a substantial part of that income and thus does not benefit from it. However, the predominant nature of the applicant’s business as set out above is not materially affected by this fact; it is still the case that the royalties are predominantly paid by the applicant to other companies and are thus not beneficially owned by the applicant and thus do not satisfy the relevant statutory condition. The applicant does not have that benefit even if it carries out other activities which it mentions in the application (e.g. marketing or research and development), which, however, in the Court’s view, was not demonstrated in any detail by the applicant in the tax proceedings and thus remained merely an allegation, since it is not the beneficial owner of the royalties received, since it is contractually obliged to pay them to the beneficial owner.”
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