When Is a Blog Like a Business? When It Gets Slammed with Fees & Taxes

April 3, 2015

income tax

Bloggers love a controversy, and that includes me. The big controversy this week was over a new "tax"—more accurately, a business license—being imposed on bloggers in Philadelphia. Last week, Philly's City Paper reported that owners of small, low-traffic blogs were receiving letters from the city "demanding" they pay $300 for a business privilege license.

This license applies to all businesses in the city, not just blogs, but only recently, it seems, has the city attempted to enforce it with blogs. There does seem to be an inherent difference between a blog and a brick-and-mortar business—the latter is probably benefiting from services that the city provides, but a blog run by someone who happens to live in Philadelphia wouldn't seem to. But the license, city officials claim, applies either way.

Naturally, outrage and cries of first amendment rights violation ensued. I first heard about the controversy via Marketing Pilgrim, where Frank Reed writes, "Imagine you live in Philadelphia and you have a blog. You are like about 99.9 percent of the world’s bloggers so you make no money and the blog is a labor of love. Now imagine that you are going to be charged $300 for the privilege of having your blog start from the City of Brotherly Love." He adds that he wants to "go on record as saying that this is completely ridiculous."

Justin Kownacki reacted less emotionally—he claims this is an opportunity to ask yourself if your blog is in fact a business:

If you’re blogging as a creative outlet, but you have sidebar ads … is your blog a business?

If your blog is a self-promotional tool, but it leads to direct consulting or marketing work … is your blog a business?

If you’ve never written a post in your life, but you employ autoscripts that crawl, steal and repost other people’s content to drive up your SEO ranking so you can charge for more blog ads … are you a business?

Computerworld ran a story with the somewhat inflammatory headline "Philadelphia wants bloggers to start paying taxes," subtitled "Those who make money with their writing better get out their checkbooks." But the story contradicts that: "There's no specific blogger tax, as some media outlets reported today." (Yes, some media outlets are so disingenuous.)

Shit didn't really hit the fan until Lisa Barone of Outspoken Media blogged about the "tax." In typical Outspoken fashion, Lisa didn't pull any punches—she said bloggers should "put up, shut up and pay their tax" and later "'Hobby' is often another way of saying 'I’m scared to fail'." Lisa says if bloggers don't take themselves seriously, no one else will:

My biggest issue with bloggers and blogging is the lack of credibility assigned to the medium. And a big part of why bloggers are looked at as a joke and or imposters is because they treat themselves that way by half-assing content and not committing to what they’re doing. When you don’t take what you do seriously, you give other people license to disrespect you in the same way. I don’t think that a $300 lifetime blogger license is going to make people heed the power of the keyboard, but I do wonder if maybe it’s not a step in the right direction to make people take what they’re doing more seriously or at least question it. If you’re appalled by the idea of having to pay a one-time lifetime fee of $300 then maybe you shouldn’t be blogging. I don’t think a fee would fix blogging but maybe it would shine a light on some people who shouldn’t be there. If your blog isn’t worth $300, total, in your lifetime, then I don’t want it clogging up my Internet.

As of today the post as 185 comments, many quite heated.

Taxing Bloggers

Most arguments centered around the definition of "business" and the question of "double-dipping," or being taxed twice for the same income. In other words, if you make money by placing ads on your blog, you have to declare those profits as income and pay state and federal taxes on it. Why should you have to pay the city again? These arguments are rather beside the point since the $300 is not a tax, but a flat license cost. However, it does seem a bit absurd to ask bloggers who only make a few dollars per month from their AdSense ads to pony up the fee.

What about the first question—when is a blog a business? Lisa and her Outspoken teammate Rae Hoffman argue that the second you put ads on your blog—regardless of whether they make significant money—your blog is a business, and you should take that business seriously (i.e., pay your fees) or get the hell off the Internet. Some commenters seemed to agree, such as Joe Hall:

If you blog because you think your ideas have value, then shouldn’t you do everything possible to make sure your ideas are delivered to your readers? Even if that takes paying money to a hosting company or government??

If you aren’t willing to invest in your ideas, then you have no right to share them.

People in this camp are saying, "What's the big deal, it's $300, just make the money and pay the fee!" Joe suggests mowing lawns to make the money; Rae said on Twitter that when she was starting a business she "sold shit on eBay." But how is this any different from trying to make money with your blog? Couldn't starting a lawn mowing business or selling stuff on eBay be seen as a small business too, by Philly's standards? Wouldn't that just require you to pay for another license?

Other commenters argue that there should be room for middle ground—some hobby bloggers use AdSense not to earn a living but to recoup hosting fees. One commenter noted:

I’ve never considered blogging a business. You’re not selling anything or providing any services. I don’t think a business license should apply here, however I do think paying taxes should.

If you make enough you get a 1099 every year at tax time from Google, Casale, Adbrite, TribalFusion, RockYou, or whatever ad network you use. I declare my earnings on my taxes, and make sure I write off all the hosting, domain names, and other expenses.

For many (the authors of this blog excluded) blogging is a hobby, not a business. the real issue here is the business license, not the fact that bloggers have to pay. They should pay, just not in the form of a license.

To me, poker and blackjack are hobbies. I make money each year at casinos. I pay taxes on it like I should, but I don’t think I should have to register myself as a business.

I just don’t believe that all blogs are actually a “business” – many can be hobbies, and there are plenty of hobbies out there that make a small profit (bowling, pool, darts, softball tournaments, etc..) Those shouldn’t be businesses either.

Several took issue with the tone of the post, which was seen as elitist:

What surprises me is the tone of your post. In poopooing amateur bloggers you are displaying a certain type of classism that I didn’t realize existed within the blogging community. Of course such a federation and the solidarity therein is a myth; still the fact you choose to target the little guy rather than the misguided lawmakers, reeks of elitism.

Another, in response to the idea that bloggers who aren't serious about business are just clogging up the pipes, wrote sarcastically:

A lot of the things people do to try to make money need to be taxed more. A $300 licensing fee for babysitters would weed out the slackers who just watch TV with the kids till the parents get home, and help those who aspire to do better to focus more on honing their craft.

And we should tax neighborhood basketball. That’d force those punks to get serious about the game. Either they’ve got the skills to get to the NBA, or they should stop fooling themselves and go do something else. Street ball would go way up in credibility if all players were licensed.

Alan Bleiweiss commented:

All this high and mighty talk from so many people bitching about the whining is, itself, whining.

Another aspect of the pro-"tax" argument I find troublesome: the attitude that whether or not you agree with the law is immaterial—it's the law, that's the way it is, stop complaining. For example: "The law is the law … Bitching about it won’t do a whole lot of good." But a little healthy dissent is often in order when it comes to law. That's how laws that prevent women from voting and gays from marrying get overturned. Some laws are stupid—complacency is how stupid laws get entrenched.

At the end of her post, Lisa adds this note:

In June Philly council members Bill Green and Maria Quiñones-Sánchez introduced a proposal that would that would reform the current Business Privilege Tax and make it so that businesses wouldn’t have to pay taxes on their first $100,000 profits. That’s a compromise that would likely make even the angriest of bloggers happy.

This is confusingly worded, but I assume she means bloggers wouldn't have to pay for a business license until they made 100K in profits (regular old taxes still apply). Certainly, a cut-off point below which a license isn't necessary makes a lot of sense, even if it were lower than that. As it stands, I say leave people who make a couple bucks a month from AdSense or selling homemade jewelry on Etsy alone.

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Have a great weekend!

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alancleaver/4105756012/

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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