Did you see where Don McLean sold his original manuscript for “American Pie” at Christie’s? He sold the work for $1.2 million, and it included his handwritten notes and deletions from the 1971-72 hit that – at 8 ½ minutes – was the longest song to ever top the U.S. charts.
The song of course is famous for its allusions. The “day the music died” refers to the death of Buddy Holly, whereas “the king” supposedly refers to Elvis Presley while “the jester on the sidelines” refers to Bob Dylan after his motorcycle accident. It became an anthem to disillusionment, to the sense of our best days being behind us and the ennui and hopelessness of a society being carted off in the wrong direction.
Sounds eerily contemporary.
He explained that he had forgotten he had the manuscript. He found it in the proverbial old box that had survived several moves. The sale allowed him to provide for his family, now and into the future.
Yes, $1.2 million will do that.
So what are the tax consequences from the sale of his manuscript?
We are talking about intellectual property and a subset we will call creative properties.
For the most part, self-created properties cannot be a capital asset in the hands of its creator. This causes a problem, as one requires a capital asset if one wants capital gains.
Take it a step further. If someone else owns the asset but its tax basis (that is, its cost for purposes of calculating gain or loss) is determined by reference to the creator’s basis, then it cannot be a capital asset. How can this happen? Easy. You could gift the property, for example, or you could contribute the property to a family limited partnership. In either case the recipient will “take over” your basis in the creative property. Since the basis remains the same, it cannot be a capital asset.
The vocabulary gets tricky when discussing creative property. For example, an author (say Stephen King) may receive a “royalty.” Coincidently, find oil in your backyard and chances are an oil company will also pay you a royalty. Since the word “royalty” is the same, are the tax consequences the same?
The answer is no. If you write a book or score a movie soundtrack, that royalty is probably ordinary income to you. In fact, it is reported on Schedule C of your individual tax return, the same as your self-employment income from Uber. The oil royalty, on the other hand, is reported on Schedule E, along with rents. The Schedule C royalty will trigger self-employment tax. The Schedule E will not.
OBSERVATION: We have discussed before that sometimes a word will have different meanings as it travels through the tax Code. Here is an example.
As always, there are exceptions. Let’s say you write one book and never write again. The IRS will likely consider that to be ordinary income but not self-employment income. Why? Supposedly it takes two or more books to establish that you are in the trade or business of writing books.
OBSERVATION: I am curious how the IRS would apply this standard to Harper Lee. She published, you will recall, To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960. It was only this year that she published her second work (Go Set a Watchman) – 55 years later. What do you think: is this self-employment income or not?
Remember when Michael Jackson bought the catalog of Beatles music? He bought it as a non-alternative investment, akin to stocks and bonds. Like a stock or bond, Michael Jackson would have had capital gains had he sold the catalog.
This created a fuss among songwriters. If they sold their own compositions, they would have ordinary and self-employment income. Introduce Michael Jackson and the tax result transmuted to capital gains.
So Congress passed Section 1221(b)(3), which incorporated a provision from the Songwriter’s Capital Gains Equity Act, promoted by the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NASI). It extended capital gains to self-created music owned for more than one year. It requires an election, and the songwriter/creative can elect for one musical composition and not for another. It does require the transfer of a musical composition or a copyright in the same; transfer something less and the result defaults to ordinary income.
NASI argued that the industry had changed. By the 1990s many music artists were acting as their own publishers or co-publishers, meaning they had some control over the exploitation of their songs. Gone were the days of Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, when songwriters sold their songs outright to music publishers with no right to ongoing income.
Don McLean now has a tax option that he did not have years ago when he recorded “American Pie.” I suppose that there could be a scenario where it would be more advantageous to recognize the $1.2 million as ordinary income rather than as capital gains, but I cannot easily think of any that do not require low-probability tax considerations.
I would say he is making the election.
About the author
Steven D. Hamilton is a career CPA, with extensive experience involving all aspects of tax practice, including sophisticated income tax planning and handling of tax controversy matters for closely-held businesses and high-income individuals.