Last week, fellow Kat Neil delighted us with a brilliant post on one of the biggest nightmares of IP lawyers, who are so often confronted with the
wisdom of the crowd. “But everyone else does it” is not only the client’s dreaded
response to an advice he dislikes. It works equally well (or bad) to explain corporate practices that raise doubts or concerns. A couple of days ago, representatives
of Apple appeared before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of
the US Senate, at a hearing dedicated to ‘Offshore Profit Shifting and the US Tax Code’, to testify about the Cupertino-based company’s fiscal practices (video here).
This post is not a comment on these practices, but a collection of IP-centred
thoughts, triggered by the arguments and issues discussed at the hearing.
|A familiar sight welcomed this Kat|
during a trip to Austria
'[a] company that found remarkable success by harnessing American ingenuity and the opportunities afforded by the U.S. economy should not be shifting its profits overseas to avoid the payment of U.S. tax, purposefully depriving the American people of revenue' (statement here).These remarks trigger an interesting question: what is the relationship between corporate taxes and IP?
Answering this question requires a level of abstraction. If taxes paid by individuals are generally seen both as a compensation for services rendered by the public administration and as a contribution to their financing, proportional to the citizen’s income, the situation is different in relation to corporations. Many of the services they benefit from are either financed through non-income based taxes (e.g. property taxes in relation to local services), or are indirect and non-exclusive. As far as IP, in a broad sense, is concerned, these services include the establishment of an intellectual property law system (through relevant national legislation and international cooperation efforts), the creation of judicial bodies and procedures that ensure the enforcement of IP law, the creation and maintenance of a high-quality educational system (from which future innovators come from), and the development of research-centred policies (including public research financing, incentives for research and development, grants and international exchange programmes, etc.).
Assuming that a relevant part of corporate taxes is indeed devoted to this aim, it would be interesting to measure the efficiency and costs of these services, comparing these data with corporate tax contributions. In this hypothesis, the interdependence between the IP system, the companies that use it, and the (future) inventors that fuel it would necessary imply that, when companies attempt to minimize their fiscal burden, the overall development of the intellectual property system, and its beneficial effects, could be reduced, to the detriment of companies themselves. In other words, low-taxed profits may generate happy share holders in the short term, but may also take a long term hit on the overall efficiency of the IP environment from which the companies benefit. Several arguments could dispute this reasoning. For example, we could argue that a very small amount of corporate taxes is used to improve the IP system, or that its efficiency does not justify the current tax rates - Apple's CEO expressed its disappointment about the length of IP trials in the US, in contrast to the fast productive cycles of the same products which are the matter of the underlying disputes. Most of these counter-arguments, however, share a common concern: it is in the companies' interest that their taxes are invested in the development of a working and efficient environment for the protection of IP. Perhaps the Subcommittee should have focused on this perspective as well, since it may actively influence the companies' fiscal strategies.
|Tim Cook, Apple's CEO|
These dynamics suggest that investments in research and development could provide important long term benefits. A low fiscal burden, coupled with high cash deposits and generous policies for rewarding share holders, may improve a company's financial stability in the short term. By contrast, a higher participation to public spending in the IP sector, through a fair tax contribution, and the use of cash reserves to improve the company's potential to generate innovation, may result in lower short term income, and meet the share holder's criticism, but should secure the long-term business sustainability which essentially gives innovative companies a competitive advantage independent from the market's trends, and the stability that comes from the reduced reliance on it. Even if market dynamics, consumers' preferences and strategic use of cash and IP assets appear to drive competitors' moves, the "everyone else does it" mantra may prove, once again, to be a weak argument.