Decoding Transfer Pricing: The Commercialisation of IP for Multinational Corporations

Jun 12, 2024 | News

When companies operate globally, they often share goods and services within their own network of subsidiaries. The prices they set for these transactions are known as transfer pricing. For Multinational Corporations (MNCs), getting these prices right is crucial, especially when it comes to Intellectual Property (IP) like technology and brand names.


In global commerce, transfer pricing has emerged as a critical issue for Multinational Corporations (MNCs) engaged in the commercialisation of Intellectual Property (IP). The recent judgment in the case of ABD Limited vs. The Commissioner for South African Revenue Service (SARS) sheds light on the complexities and intricacies involved in transfer pricing, particularly when it comes to licensing IP across borders.

Transfer pricing refers to the prices of goods and services exchanged between companies under common control. For MNCs, this practice is often used to allocate profits among their various subsidiaries within the organisation. The goal is to ensure that transactions between related parties are conducted at arm’s length, meaning the prices are comparable to those that would be charged between independent entities in similar circumstances.

The Case of ABD Limited

In this significant matter, ABD Limited, a South African telecommunications company with subsidiaries worldwide, faced an increased assessment by SARS concerning the royalties charged to its subsidiaries (Opcos) for the use of its IP. The primary issue was whether the 1% royalty rate applied uniformly across all subsidiaries was at arm’s length.

Methodologies in Question

The judgment highlighted two main methodologies used to determine arm’s length royalties: the Transactional Profit Split Method (TPSM) and the Comparable Uncontrolled Price Method (CUP).

  1. TPSM: This method examines the profits arising from particular controlled transactions and splits them between the associated enterprises on an economically valid basis. However, in this case, the TPSM approach led to widely varying royalty rates, which were criticised for their lack of consistency and reliability.
  2. CUP: This method compares the price charged for property or services in a controlled transaction to the price charged in a comparable uncontrolled transaction. The court found this method more persuasive, particularly in light of a transaction between ABD and an independent third party, which provided a reliable benchmark.

The Arm’s Length Principle

A central theme in the judgment was the arm’s length principle, which requires that transfer pricing between associated enterprises reflect what would have been agreed upon by independent parties. This principle is essential for ensuring fair tax treatment and avoiding the distortion of tax liabilities and revenues.

The case also underscored several challenges in applying transfer pricing rules to the commercialisation of IP:

  1. Valuation of Intangibles: Determining the value of IP, such as trade marks and goodwill, can be complex. The court criticised the approach taken by SARS’s expert, Dr. Slate, for overestimating the value of the IP by including elements like goodwill, which were not part of the licensed rights.
  2. Economic Circumstances: The economic circumstances of the parties involved, including market conditions and regulatory environments, play a significant role in determining appropriate royalty rates. The court emphasised the need for a nuanced approach that considers these factors.
  3. Consistency in Methodologies: The case illustrated the importance of consistency in applying transfer pricing methodologies. The court favoured the CUP method due to its closer alignment with market-based arm’s length transactions.

What are the implications for Multinational Corporations?

The judgment in ABD Limited vs. SARS serves as a valuable precedent for MNCs applying transfer pricing in the commercialisation of their IP. It highlights the need for robust, market-based methodologies to ensure compliance with transfer pricing regulations and minimise disputes with tax authorities.

Transfer pricing remains a critical and complex issue for MNCs, especially when it involves the commercialisation of IP across different jurisdictions. The ABD Limited case provides key insights into the application of the arm’s length principle and the importance of choosing appropriate transfer pricing methodologies. It also highlights the importance for MNC to ensure that the IP being transferred or licenced has been properly identified.

Article by Gaby Meintjes | Director
Email: gaby.m@fwblaw.co.za