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IRS Ruling Affects Media (and Other) Businesses Dabbling in Bitcoin Use

While it has been around since 2009, Bitcoin has seen substantial media coverage in the past few months. Media outlets (as well as many other businesses) have been increasingly dabbling in the Bitcoin world, if for no other reason than to show they are up to date with the latest consumer fixations.

While numerous businesses have begun accepting Bitcoin transactions, the most likely place to find them in the media world is as contest prizes or as part of an advertiser promotion. Of course, one of the principal reasons for the novelty of Bitcoin is its goal of being an electronic currency unregulated by governments. As a result, how businesses have been treating their usage of bitcoins from an accounting and legal perspective is highly variable, since it is in many ways a new frontier.

That frontier changed significantly yesterday, when the IRS ruled that virtual currencies like Bitcoin are to be treated as property for federal tax purposes, with transactions using virtual currency subject to much the same tax treatment as those involving U.S. currency. Our own Jim Gatto, head of Pillsbury’s Social Media and Games Team, distributed a Pillsbury Client Alert discussing the ruling. In that Alert, Jim notes that the impact of the IRS ruling includes:

  • Wages paid to employees using virtual currency are taxable to the employee, must be reported by the employer on a Form W-2, and are subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes.
  • Payments using virtual currency made to independent contractors and other service providers are taxable and self-employment tax rules generally apply. Normally, payers must issue IRS Form 1099.
  • The character of gain or loss from the sale or exchange of virtual currency depends on whether the virtual currency is a capital asset in the hands of the taxpayer.
  • A payment made using virtual currency is subject to information reporting to the same extent as any other payment made in property.
  • For purposes of computing gross income, a taxpayer who receives virtual currency as payment for goods or services must include the fair market value of virtual currency received as measured in U.S. dollars, as of the date that the virtual currency was received.

The Client Alert provides additional detail, but if you are using bitcoins for any type of transaction, whether as contest prize, currency for purchases on your website, or payments to employees and vendors, the IRS has made clear that you will need to follow the same procedures (and pay taxes) as though the transaction had occurred in dollars.

While that is a big issue for businesses doing large Bitcoin transactions, businesses dabbling in small and occasional Bitcoin transactions will need to pay even closer attention than they would to a transaction using traditional currency. For example, if the prize in a station contest is one bitcoin, the station will need to assess whether awarding the prize triggers the need for issuing IRS Form 1099 to record the awarding of the prize. In a cash prize contest, that is straightforward, since the Form 1099 currently specifies a prize of $600 or more as the threshold for needing to issue the form. As I write this, however, the current Bitcoin exchange rate is roughly $582 U.S. dollars per bitcoin. That means a one bitcoin prize would not trigger the need for a Form 1099, but a two bitcoin prize would.

Similarly, yesterday’s IRS ruling seems to indicate that the bitcoin must be valued for tax purposes at the time it is received. As a result, the station holding the contest would need to check the value of a bitcoin on the day the prize is awarded to see if it is above or below the $600 threshold for tax purposes. Of course, given the volatility of the Bitcoin exchange rate, this raises other questions, such as how do you value the bitcoin for tax reporting if the exchange rate was below $600 for part of that day and above $600 for part of that day, or if the day the prize is “sent” is not the same day as the prize winner receives or “cashes” it.

Like so many things, Bitcoin appears to be another example of something meant to simplify life, but which is turning out to only make life more complicated. Look for life to get even more complicated as individual states formally adopt a similar approach in treating virtual currency transactions as taxable events.

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