This post was written by Marina Palomba, a partner in Reed Smith's London office.
[Ed. Note: There's been a lot of attention on the issue of tax incentives (including on this blog). As many of our clients are based in the UK, we wanted to give a perspective on the recent UK developments there]
Many in the games industry had high hopes for tax incentives to be introduced in the UK if the Conservative Party won the 2010 general election. The new coalition government between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats has now decided against implementing a game specific tax credit, despite supporting such a credit before the election. Right or wrong, this is perceived as a real blow to the games industry in the UK.
For the uninitiated in the economics of the gaming industry, it is estimated that, worldwide, the game industry in 2008 was about $45 billion. This number is expected to grow $48.9 in 2011 and $68 billion in 2012, making it the fastest-growing component of the media sector worldwide. Being a major player in this sector is no laughing matter.
Why was the UK games industry calling for tax incentives?
Despite the UK leading the field in games development for some time in recent times Canada has shot up the rankings as the premier developer of boxed products. This has come as a severe blow to the UK which points to the fact that Canada, and parts of the USA, have very generous tax regimes for the games industry. One might argue that tax incentives alone do not make for success alone but nevertheless TIGA, the trade association representing the UK’s games industry, has supported and called for tax breaks.
TIGA’s reasons for lobbying for tax reforms are basically 4 fold:
- Foreign government support for video games development over the last decade has created an uneven international playing field, making it difficult for UK games developers to compete;
- A brain drain to subsidised studios overseas is causing a lack of skilled staff in the UK;
- While globally the industry grew by 20% in 2008, the UK video games industry fell by 4%; and
- Tax revenue to the UK government fell in 2009 by £17 million and the sector’s gross contribution to the GDP declined by £41 million.
In short, according to TIGA, the British-made video games are facing a long-term decline in the global sales charts and the UK is expected to fall to 5th place, overtaken by Canada and South Korea, whose studios are heavily government supported.
Why has the UK Government ruled out the proposed tax relief?
In November 2010 the Coalition Government, under Minister David Gauke, gave its reasons why a specific tax relief is unjustified [see text of the debate here]:
- Tax relief artificially distorts markets
David Gauke has indicated that a tax incentive for the games industry would merely rob investment in other successful areas. He also rejected the TIGA figures saying they were erroneous. He also clearly indicated that TIGA’s assumptions about unemployment in the industry were unfounded saying that the highly skilled would easily find new work.
- There is no evidence of market failure
The Minister added that "The United Kingdom’s video games industry is recognised as a world leader, having produced hugely successful games such as the "Grand Theft Auto" series, and has led to innovations in industries as diverse as defence and health care…..all ..achieved without specific Government intervention for the sector through the tax system."
- The Government prefers wholesale tax breaks rather than specific industry relief
In the June Budget the Coalition cut corporate tax rates from 28% to 24%. The government clearly also dislikes the proliferation of special tax regimes and exemptions. It has allegedly inherited over 1,040 such tax relief exemptions and while continuing to support some such tax breaks it is certainly not willing to introduce new ones.
- Under EU regulations such tax breaks will be illegal state aid
What does this mean for the UK Games industry?
The arguments for and against tax relief can continue but commentators and experts in games development, such as Nick Lovell of Gamesbrief, are supportive of efforts to stimulate new business activity and investment, particularly by helping with training and networking, and much less so of direct government involvement in commercial decisions. Nick Lovell states:
"I fear that tax breaks would have helped the UK in the short term, offering publishers a bribe to place their development in the UK. But in the long-term it does not help us innovate, develop new business models and grow. Like Canada, we will become indentured serfs, dispatching our surpluses to foreign paymasters. The long-term is what matters, not attempting to stem the tide of change.
I would rather that the film industry was not subsidised. I would rather that Canada did not offer games tax breaks. But given that Canada does, my preferred solution is to make the UK the best place in the world for small businesses (low corporation tax rates, highly skilled knowledge workers, a creative community), not to offer tax breaks due to special pleading on an industry-by-industry basis."
Others in the video games industry are less sanguine. TIGA CEO Richard Wilson said "Unless the Coalition Government introduces Games Tax Relief or a similar fiscal measure then the UK will forfeit millions of pounds in inward investment, jobs will be lost and we will cease to be a leading developer of video games."
The Association for United Kingdom Interactive Entertainment (a/k/a UKIE, which was formerly known as the European Leisure Software Publishers Association, or ELSPA) is also unhappy with the decision. UKIE's director general, Michael Rawlinson, said: "We are extremely disappointed by today's budget. Our industry will be rightly puzzled as to how tax breaks can be lauded before an election, only to be seen as 'poorly targeted' and scrapped just six weeks later."
The future looks secure for the gaming sector in general, if not the UK. Though games revenue slipped last year the gaming business remains strong. Predictions for 2011 include a rise in cloud gaming and that the USA will continue to dominate the market and entertainment software will remain one of the fastest growing industries in the U.S. economy. This may not be something, sadly, that the UK will be able to claim.