In what is being hailed as a major victory for VoIP, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that some state telecommunications regulations do not apply to providers of “voice over IP” services, and ruled that states are barred from imposing telecommunications regulations on Internet phone service providers. The FCC clearly indicated that existing regulations which rely on where a call originates and terminates (“geography-based”)—relevant when the original laws and regulations were written—are increasingly irrelevant today. The decision calls into question the validity of numerous state regulations which conflict with the Commission’s policies and regulations, but the hard work is yet to come—the FCC still must draft rules for services that rely on the “Internet Protocol,” the backbone of the Internet’s infrastructure. The Commission also did not address whether cable service providers were or were not covered by this ruling. Dozens of states are currently trying to regulate voice over IP, nervous that revenues from telecommunications taxes will diminish as businesses and consumers migrate their voice traffic to the unregulated Internet, although the FCC’s ruling does not diminish the power of state to enact and enforce consumer protection laws for the benefit of their citizens. Taxation and other regulation, however, may be a different matter.
Film, Tax and Videotape
In an attempt to lure film and television production back to New York from cheaper or more tax-advantaged locations such as Canada and Europe where they have been headed in recent years, New York has passed a bill offering tax cuts to benefit films and television shows produced in New York, although the bill does not extend to commercial productions. The Empire State Film Production Credit Program, signed into law on September 28, provides a tax credit for 10 percent of the production costs of feature films and episodic television programs produced by companies that spend 75 percent or more of their facility-related production costs at a qualifying production facility within New York. The law also allows New York City to offer additional incentives, including a 5 percent tax credit on projects, credits for outdoor media marketing, and assistance with story development, scouting, vendor discounts and consulting.
In a related development, the UK has enacted new permanent and more generous tax relief for small British films to replace the old Section 48 relief, which is scheduled to expire in July 2005. The new tax relief applies to 100 percent of a film’s UK production and raises the “small” film budget for qualifying purposes from £15m to £20m. Qualifying films will be entitled to government subsidies worth up to £4m per film under the new law, and film productions with budgets of up to £20m will receive a tax waiver on their production costs, including overseas costs—subject to the condition that the film actually makes a profit. The government subsidies, worth up to 20 percent of the film’s budget, will be paid directly to the producers on completion of the film. Under current Section 48 regulations, subsidies went to third parties who funded the films. Now they will be paid directly to the film makers.
The British tax relief announcement comes on the heels of a recent (February 10, 2004) clamp-down on some of the UK’s largest tax equity film funds. Set up as sale-and-leaseback deals, these funds allowed British investors to acquire marketing rights to studio films in Britain, the United States and Canada, and enabled investors to write off the cost as an upfront tax loss and lease the films back to the studios for periodic payments over 15 or 20 years. The deals often provided an option for a studio buy-out after a shorter period of time, but those exit strategies were banned by the UK’s Inland Revenue in what has come to be referred to in the film industry as “Black Tuesday.” On that day, the Inland Revenue issued a tax rule change closing a loophole that allowed these funds to operate outside the existing Section 48 film tax break and permitted claiming production costs as tax losses. As if intent on delivering a one-two punch, in March the UK followed this with a prohibition against print and advertising funds that were bankrolling distribution of features from some of the major motion picture studios.
Critics point out that the consequences of these bans could be a dramatic decrease in films produced and shot in the UK, already reeling from a strong pound sterling and increased competition for film financing. We can only assume the newly announced Section 48 incentives, with its direct production credits and other attributes, scheduled to take effect in July 2005 when the current scheme expires, are intended to attempt to repair some of the tax damage done. Combining our poor sense of humor, film and legal expertise, we can only say, “The jury is still out; stay tuned: film at 11:00”!