Cloud computing is causing confusion to tax departments, small and large. Are cloud transactions subject to sales and use tax? Subject to income tax? How do you describe the cloud and what does it offer to companies?
What is the cloud really?
Before you can begin to answer any questions about taxing cloud transactions, you need to understand: what is the cloud?
Cloud computing essentially relies on shared computing resources versus local servers or personal devices for operating applications. “Cloud” is a metaphor for “the Internet” implying Internet-based computing. However, the cloud can provide much more than just application services. It offers data processing, information services, hardware lease/rental, telecommunication services, and software applications and systems, to name a few. Businesses are able to use cloud services to maintain a sophisticated infrastructure without the financial and employee resources local infrastructures require.
After understanding the principles of cloud transactions and characteristics, then you need to find how those offerings fit into state tax categories. Very few states have actually addressed cloud transaction tax categories and how they should be taxed. The IRS is being asked how cloud transactions should be characterized – provisions of services, rental income, royalty income, or what?
What are the characteristics of cloud transactions?
It is already common knowledge that finding and categorizing state tax regulations into neat, easily understood types is next to impossible. Each state maintains their own classifications, tangible/non-tangible definitions, taxable services and much, much more. The first step in determining a reasonable basis for cloud computing taxation begins with some basic state taxation questions:
What are the characteristics being provided by cloud computing for tax categorization?
- What are the sourcing issues? Destination-based (end user) or Origin-based (location of cloud data center)?
- What are the nexus considerations?
- Are services provided only; or is there a right to use tangible personal property?
- If tangible personal property involved, does the state tax all software or only canned software?
- Is there a right to access technology or just the use of technology?
- Is Internet access included?
Determining the use of your cloud computing will aid in answering many of these questions. If you are using only the cloud as an application server, then most likely the characteristics resemble those of software and software services. With that said, you still need to determine what your state regulations are for these characterizations. Some states tax canned software, but not custom software. Defining custom software is essential since there are different definitions of what is custom software. There is also much differentiation between states on software licensing and services; it would be recommended to check each state taxing authority to begin your research.
Some states determine that where the cloud computing center is located is the tax situs; others take the end-user location as the taxing situs. The latter could cause issues and complications for multi-state companies using one cloud computing center for multiple state locations. This may require allocation of usage to each state and company location.
Do Some Due Diligence
With so much at stake and states taking more interest in taxing cloud computing offerings, companies (large and small) would benefit from performing due diligence in what is or is not subject to taxation. Check the Streamline Sales Tax Governing Board, Inc. website for more information; however, any mainstream progress is slow to getting a common characterization and definition of cloud taxability. At a minimum, check the State Tax Matrices for your applicable states and determine if cloud computing is addressed in the matrix.
The take away is to ensure the tax department knows about any cloud computing usage in companies; don’t leave the research to the IT department. No offense to IT departments, but they are not the tax experts. Too many times tax departments are the last to know and then the tax consequences are already set in motion. Better to stay ahead and prepared and not have to fix the issue after-the-fact.
The next major concern is the application of nexus rules and how they are affecting remote retailers and service providers. Does cloud computing create nexus? My next blog will cover some of the various nexus definitions and how they affect how business is run today.
Laura Hoffman is an Indirect Tax Specialist living in Las Vegas, Nevada. Laura retired from a multi-state natural gas distribution company after specializing in sales & use taxes, franchise fees, business licensing, property taxes, excise and utility taxes for over 15 years.