The EU's highest court recently ruled that the European Union countries may not extend tax exemptions for books to include ebooks, adding that it considers downloadable ebooks to be services. E-books must be subject to the full rate of value-added tax (VAT), the court ruled.
In France and in Luxembourg, the supply of electronic books is subject to a reduced rate of VAT. Accordingly, since January 1, 2012, France has applied a VAT rate of 5.5 percent and Luxembourg a rate of 3 percent to the supply of electronic books.
The digital or electronic books at issue include books supplied, for consideration, by download or web streaming ('streaming'), from a website so that they can be viewed on a computer, a smartphone, electronic book readers or other reading system.
The Commission has asked the Court to declare that, by applying a reduced rate of VAT to the supply of electronic books, France and Luxembourg have failed to fulfil their obligations under the VAT Directive.
In the recent judgment, the Court upholds the Commission's action for failure to fulfil obligations.
The Court points out, first of all, that a reduced rate of VAT can apply only to supplies of goods and services covered by Annex III to the VAT Directive. That annex refers in particular to the 'supply of books ... on all physical means of support'. The Court concludes that the reduced rate of VAT is applicable to a transaction consisting of the supply of a book found on a physical medium. While admittedly, in order to be able to read an electronic book, physical support (such as a computer) is required, such support is not included in the supply of electronic books, meaning that Annex III does not include the supply of such books within its scope.
Moreover, the Court finds that the VAT Directive excludes any possibility of a reduced VAT rate being applied to 'electronically supplied services'. The Court holds that the supply of electronic books is such a service. The Court rejects the argument that the supply of electronic books constitutes a supply of goods (and not a supply of services). Only the physical support enabling an electronic book to be read could qualify as 'tangible property' but such support is not part of the supply of electronic books.
The Commission also criticises Luxembourg for applying a super-reduced VAT rate of 3 percent, even though the VAT Directive prohibits, in principle, VAT rates lower than 5 percent. The Court recalls that, according to the VAT Directive, a Member State may apply reduced VAT rates lower than 5 percent, provided that, among other things, the reduced rates are in accordance with EU legislation. Since the Court held earlier that the application of a reduced rate of VAT to the supply of electronic books does not comply with the VAT Directive, the requirement that it comply with EU legislation is not met with the result that Luxembourg cannot apply a super-reduced VAT rate of 3 percent to the supply of electronic books.
The judgments delivered by the Court does not prevent Member States from introducing a reduced rate of VAT for books on physical support, such as paper books.