The case of the stolen smell

I recently saw James Blake tweet, “The brainwashing worked and now people think music is free.” Then, a couple of days later, I read this story:

In the days of old Yedo, as Tokyo was once called, storytellers told wonderful tales. Many of the stories were about the wit and wisdom of Ooka Tadasuke.

Ooka was a famous judge. He never refused to hear a complaint. It did not matter if it seemed strange. It did not matter if it seemed foolish. People came to his court with the most unusual cases. But Ooka always agreed to listen to them. And the strangest case of all was the famous “Case of the Stolen Smell.”

It all began when a poor student rented a room over a tempura shop. That is a shop where fried food is sold. The student was a poor, young man. Everyone liked him. But the shopkeeper was a miser. He suspected one and all of trying to get the better of him. He thought everyone was trying to cheat him.

One day, he heard the student talking with one of his friends.

The friend complained, “It is sad to be so poor that one can afford to eat only plain rice.”

“Oh,” said the student, “I have found a very fine answer to that problem. Every day, I eat my rice at the same time that the shopkeeper downstairs fries his fish. The smell floats up. That makes my humble rice seem to have much more flavor. It is really the smell, you know, that makes things taste so good.”

The shopkeeper was furious. To think that someone was enjoying the smell of his fish for nothing!

“Thief!” he shouted to the student. “I demand that you pay me for the smells you have stolen.”

“A smell is a smell,” the young man answered. “Anyone can smell what he wants to. I will pay you nothing.”

The shopkeeper went into a rage. He rushed to Ooka’s court. There he charged the student with theft. Of course everyone laughed at him. For how could anyone steal a smell? They thought that Ooka would surely smile and send the man away. But to everyone’s surprise, the judge agreed to hear the case.

“All people must be given their hour in court,” Ooka explained. “This man feels very strongly about the smells of his food. He feels strongly enough to make a complaint. It is only right that I, as chief judge of the city, should hear the case.”

The people in the court smiled. They were amused. But Ooka only frowned at them.

Ooka took his place on the bench. Then he listened very carefully to the evidence. Finally he said, “I have made my decision. There is no doubt that the student is guilty. This is quite clear. Taking another person’s property is theft. And I cannot see that a smell is different from any other property.”

The shopkeeper was delighted. But the student was very upset. He was quite poor. And now he owed the shopkeeper for three months’ worth of smelling. He would surely be thrown into prison.

“How much money do you have?” Ooka asked him.

“Only five mon, Your Honor,” the boy answered. “And I need that to pay my rent, or I will be thrown out into the street.”

“Let me see the money,” said the judge.

The young man held out his hand. Ooka nodded. Then he told him to drop the coins from one hand to the other.

The judge listened to the pleasant clink of the money as it bounced from hand to hand.

Then Ooka said to the shopkeeper, “Now you have been paid. If you have any other complaints in the future, please bring them to the court. It is our wish always to be fair.”

“But, Your Honor,” the shopkeeper protested, “I did not get the money! The thief dropped it from one hand to the other. See. I have nothing! See!” He held up his empty hands.

Ooka looked at him very closely. Then Ooka said, “This court believes that the punishment should fit the crime. I have decided that the price of the smell of food shall be the sound of money. Therefore, you have been paid. Justice, as usual, has been done in my court.”

When something takes a digital form, the cost of transmitting or duplicating the information becomes—practically—zero. It’s not unlike a smell. 

The nuance is that the business model of music didn’t use to be like this. Then again, not all recording artists had the same level of influence and sway that they do today. The “smell” of music is now exchanged for the “sound” of our attention.

People will still pay for food. Some will pay for customization, others will pay for richer media like video or films, and others will pay for a live experience. A surefire way to find these people is to give away some content, the same way a restaurant purposely gives away the smell.

Imagine an alternate ending to the story, albeit one that doesn’t involve the witty judge:

The miserly shopkeeper decided to act against his paranoid instinct, and to strike up a conversation with the student. Perhaps they build a relationship and the shopkeeper opened his windows up wide every day, even occasionally giving the student some leftovers when he could spare. 

A couple of years later, after the student graduated and found employment, he would become a regular at the shopkeeper’s restaurant, gladly bringing friends and family over, never forgetting the shopkeeper’s generosity. 

The shopkeeper didn’t have many friends before due to his miserly nature, but because the student is well-liked, the neighborhood grew to appreciate the shopkeeper as well and frequented his store more often. When the shopkeeper fell on hard times, the young man and people from around the neighborhood kept his shop afloat. The shopkeeper, in turn, learned to become more generous and friendly.

Sure, you can lock up all of the windows, the doors, and keep the kitchen closed. Or you can share your work with the world to brighten up someone’s day.

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