Wednesday, May 23, 2018

The Postman Always Sniffs Twice

The U.S. Postal Service has finally waddled into the scented postage stamp game, announcing the release on June 20, 2018 of a set of “Frozen Treat” forever stamps. That’s right: America’s first scented stamps will celebrate . . . popsicles.

Could the USPS have picked a more innocuous (and boring!) scented theme?

Also hard to imagine: could they have launched the new issue with a more tepid press release?
The stamps feature illustrations of frosty, colorful, icy pops on a stick. Today, Americans love cool, refreshing ice pops on a hot summer day. The tasty, sweet confections come in a variety of shapes and flavors.

Weirdly, while it describes a bunch of popsicle flavors (watermelon, blueberry, orange, strawberry, chocolate, root beer, cola, and kiwi) [Kiwi? Really?—Ed.] the press release doesn’t explicitly say which of these scents will appear on the stamps.

The release also says “Some frozen treats even have two sticks, making them perfect for sharing,” although none of the stamps shows a twin-stick popsicle. Each stamp, however, displays two popsicles side by side. Is the Postal Service trying to tell us that each stamp will feature the two corresponding scents? If so, that would be a philatelic first—in research for my post about smelly stamps I didn’t notice any examples of doubly-scented stamps. You’d think that would be something worth bragging about.

At any rate, the USA has finally joined the smelly stamp club. Here’s hoping the USPS will branch out into more compelling scents and themes. I stand behind the suggestions I made a few years ago:
I think it’s time the U.S. Postal Service joined the party. How about a Boston Tea Party commemorative? Or one for the Washington, D.C. cherry blossom festival? A mint julep scent to celebrate the Kentucky Derby. Why not a series of classic hot rods with scents of burnt rubber, gasoline and asphalt? A firearm series of historic muskets and revolvers with a gunpowder scent would be cool too.

UPDATE May 23, 2018
According to MarketWatch, “Each of the stamps features an image of popsicles in various forms, ranging from fruity to chocolate. The exact scent will be the same for all stamps, and will be announced with the launch of the stamps on June 20.” This is even more confusing. Does it mean the scent will be the same for given sheet of stamps (with multiple scents across the issue) or that the entire issue will feature only a single scent?

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Jay Z’s Legal Team Takes It on the Chin

Fragrance industry lawsuits have great entertainment value. They give us a glimpse into the commercial wheeling and dealing that goes on behind the perfume world’s facade of glamor, romance, and sophistication. They expose the gritty, greedy, and unsentimental nature of the business, often along with juicy personal details about the players.

One such legal epic began in January, 2016 when Parlux Fragrances sued Shawn “Jay Z” Carter for $18 million. Parlux alleged that Jay Z had failed to promote the Gold Jay Z fragrance as he was specifically required by the license agreement. The following May, Jay Z denied the Parlux claims and filed a counterclaim of his own, asking for about $2.7 million from Parlux for, among other things, more than a million dollars in unpaid guaranteed minimum royalties.

I covered the initial legal skirmishes here, here, and here. Since then, lawyers for Parlux and Jay Z have battled about boring procedural matters. They also crafted an agreement designed to keep details of the Jay Z license agreement out of public view in court filings.

In May, 2017, Jay Z’s lawyers filed a motion for partial summary judgment. They claimed that by continuing to sell Gold Jay Z, Parlux is making “substantial revenues” and yet has failed to pay Jay Z the guaranteed minimum royalties specified in the license agreement. They asked the judge to find Parlux in breach of contract and to declare that Parlux is liable for the ever-growing pile of guaranteed minimum royalty payments. The Parlux lawyers maintain the company doesn’t owe Jay Z a cent, because the contract became a dead letter when Jay Z himself breached it in the first place by failing to promote Gold Jay Z.

Finally, on February 28, 2018, oral arguments took place at the courthouse at 60 Centre Street in lower Manhattan. Things got off to a crackling start and did not go well for Jay Z’s attorney, Gianni Servodidio. The transcripts, sections of which I provide here, make for great reading. They’re better than any courtroom TV drama.
THE COURT OFFICER: All rise. Part 53, New York County Supreme Court is now in session, the Honorable Charles E. Ramos presiding. Be seated and come to order, please. Turn off all cell phones. There is absolutely no talking in the courtroom while the Judge is on the bench.

THE COURT: Good morning.

MR. SERVODIDIO: Good morning, Your Honor.

[Parlux attorney]: Good morning.

[Jay Z attorney]: Good morning.

THE COURT: All fit and ready to proceed with the motion?

MR. SERVODIDIO: Thank you, Your Honor. Good morning, Your Honor. I am Gianni Servodidio, representing the defendants and the counterclaimants S. Carter Enterprises and Shawn Carter. We’re here on a narrow claim today for partial summary judgment for unpaid royalties due under the parties’ license agreement. This motion can be decided based on the very straightforward and simple contractual principle. Under the —

THE COURT: If it was that simple, you wouldn’t be here. You know that and I know that.

MR. SERVODIDIO: Under the election of —

THE COURT: Let me ask you a question: Look —

MR. SERVODIDIO: Yes, Your Honor.

THE COURT: The plaintiff’s position is that they’re not taking advantage of Jay-Z’s license. They’re just selling the inventory that they have in order to mitigate damages. I’m not sure if it’s in the papers or not; I read most of the file. Have you conducted discovery here to the point that — do we know if they’re still manufacturing and bottling under license or is this, in fact, just inventory that they’re getting rid of?

MR. SERVODIDIO: Your Honor, it’s undisputed that they’re continuing to sell licensed products and have done so —

THE COURT: That is not the question I’m asking. Are they still bottling this stuff?

MR. SERVODIDIO: Your Honor, that’s not relevant to the motion that is before the Court.

THE COURT: You know, when I ask you a question, I expect a direct answer.

MR. SERVODIDIO: Yes, Your Honor.

THE COURT: If you’re not going to answer my questions, you can leave.

MR. SERVODIDIO: No. I’m sorry, Your Honor, there is no discovery that’s been conducted on that issue. And, with respect, that it is not germane to this narrow motion. The issue is whether they terminated the contract. And it’s really simple, Your Honor. They never exercised the termination of the contact. It’s simple how to do it. You have to send a notice of breach, which they did. And then you have to follow up with a second thing, which was an actual notice of termination required under the contract. They never did that. Instead what they did was continued 
— it’s undisputed that they continued to sell licensed product. We’re going on our third year anniversary of sales of licensed products amounting to millions of dollars. They’ve sent us an affidavit from their president —
There follows a lot of give and take about terms of the contract and relevant court decisions in other cases. Judge Ramos was not in a particularly forgiving mood that day. By the time things wrap up, we can imagine the flop sweat glistening on Mr. Servodidio’s forehead.
MR. SERVODIDIO: . . . And what these cases say clearly is that the mere assertion of a [rescission] claim isn’t enough.

THE COURT: On the other hand, here I have an apparently admittedly breaching party saying this is a slam dunk, please pay me.

MR. SERVODIDIO: Your Honor —

THE COURT: At the very least, at the very least don’t I have to consider that this was a mitigation of damages, the selling off of the inventory, number one; and number two, that your client breached?

MR. SERVODIDIO: Your Honor —

THE COURT: I can’t ignore that.

MR. SERVODIDIO: In every single case that we cite today, Your Honor, there is an allegation that the licensor breached. And in some cases —

THE COURT: Is there a denial here that Mr. Jay-Z didn’t show up?

MR. SERVODIDIO: Absolutely. The claim for breach is absolutely disputed and is the subject of hotly contested discovery right now.

THE COURT: Let me ask a very specific question; if you can’t answer it, don’t answer it, because I know you weren’t there. Did Jay-Z appear in New York as required under the contract?

MR. SERVODIDIO: There’s — there was no personal appearance, Your Honor, and that is the — we have defenses for that under the contract.

THE COURT: Motion denied. Thank you very much.

MR. VIOLA: Thank you, Your Honor.

MR. SERVODIDIO: Thank you, Your Honor.
Ouch. That’s gotta hurt.

Having failed in their pre-emptive counterattack, it looks like Jay Z’s team will now have to deal with the non-performance claims brought against their client by Parlux.

Exit question: Which TV actor should play Gianni Servodidio on the inevitable Netflix docudrama?

Monday, February 5, 2018

Frontier Psychophysics: The Prequel

Image ©Avery Gilbert

 When I moved to Colorado in mid-2015, it occurred to me that there were two local olfactory opportunities that might be commercialized. One was cow manure, the other was pot.

When the wind is right, the unmistakable scent of manure wafts over Fort Collins from large-scale cattle feedlots many miles to the east and south of town. Having grown up in California’s Central Valley, the smell of manure is, to me, familiar and not particularly disagreeable. But immediately downwind of feedlots it can be pretty intense, and the cattle industry is interested in cost-effective ways to reduce it. I did a literature search and concluded that the problem has not been adequately attacked from my point of view, i.e., as a the fragrance industry would tackle a new malodor issue. I think a combined chemical and psychophysical approach could yield commercial innovations.

But the more alluring opportunity proved to be pot, newly legal in Colorado for recreational use and an industry that is growing at an exponential rate. I sniffed my way through the wares of local dispensaries and was amazed at the enormous olfactory range on display. Some strains reeked of grapefruit, others were dense and funky. Some were almost cheesy, others mildly hay-like or even piney. From a fragrance standpoint, there is at least as much going on in weed as there is in wine, beer, coffee, or tea.

But there’s a big difference. Those other agricultural products have a long history of aesthetic appreciation. They have fully developed olfactory lexicons (think, for example, of the U.C. Davis Wine Aroma Wheel). And they have chemical standards and training programs.

Cannabis, on the other hand, maintains an outdated, underground feel. Sure, there are aficionados who can be eloquent in describing the aroma of a given strain. But there is no organized, empirically-based, agreed-upon basis for describing the scent of weed. For example, in the various “Cannabis Cup” competitions, smell is one of many dimensions on which a strain is judged, but as far as I can tell there are no specific criteria for evaluating a sample’s smell. If sheep or chickens were judged that subjectively at the county fair, there would be a riot in the livestock pavilion.

I made some inquiries at the local campus, Colorado State University. I had excellent discussions about possible collaborations with faculty in the psychology and chemistry departments. The conclusion was always the same: cannabis research was impossible. Or to be more precise, a university that takes even one dollar of federal funding is obliged to play by federal rules. That means that in order to do cannabis research, one needs a DEA license to hold and handle the drug. One can use only federal money (NIH, NSF, etc.) to carry out the research—no private or corporate funding. And finally, and most disheartening, one can only use cannabis grown at the officially approved federal plantation in Mississippi. (This product is frequently lampooned as being a throwback to 1970s era weed—the low potency, twiggy, seedy, stuff that one “cleaned” on an LP cover before rolling into a doobie.)

By this point I had landed on a simple idea—to treat locally available cannabis strains as a just another consumer product. I would do routine sensory research to characterize the relevant odor descriptors, and see whether consumers could tell one strain from another based on smell.

That was my original idea. To make it happen, I had to blaze my own trail. I found an angel investor and created a new company: Headspace Sensory LLC. I wrote an entire research plan and got it approved by an independent institutional review board. I found an excellent collaborator in Joseph DiVerdi, a Colorado State chemistry professor with an interest in cannabis and his own private lab. With his help I found a genial landlord willing to rent me a couple of rooms perfect for sniff testing.

All the elements were in place. But I still needed to find volunteer sniffers. That would prove harder than I had imagined.

“A Very Distinct Smell”

“Marijawana’s bad, and it also has a very distinct smell, okay? I’m gonna pass around just a little tiny bit. Now, I want you all to take a smell, so you know when someone is smoking marijawana near you.”
Mr. Mackey
South Park S2E3

I published a new smell study today in the scientific journal PLOS ONE: Consumer perceptions of strain differences in Cannabis aroma. You can download a free copy here. Sure, there’s some statistics and chemistry, but anyone interested in smell—or weed—can read it and understand the results.

In the spirit of Hollywood prequels, I will describe in a subsequent post how the study came about.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

'Tis the Season

Looking for a Christmas gift for a scent- and/or science-minded person? You’re in luck! There’s still time to order a paperback copy of What the Nose Knows. Order through the Amazon link on this page and you’ll add a few coins to the FirstNerve Beer Fund—at no cost to yourself.