In recent years, the digital olfaction industry has experienced significant growth, spurred by advancements in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies that are applicable to the digitization of scent. Two distinct “branches” of digital olfaction have developed in this expansion: one related to the digital detection and analysis of odor and another focused on the digital transmission and recreation of scent. While the ideal combination of technologies for application in digital olfaction remains a subject of debate, the industry has successfully launched a variety of integration-ready scent digitization interfaces. One notable example is Osmo AI, which uses the slogan, “giving computers a sense of smell.” Such digital olfaction technologies are finding various commercial applications, from the fragrance industry to more specialized areas, like the cured olive market. But digital olfaction is smelling up one field in particular: the realm of olfactory art.

Broadly, olfactory artists, curators, and art critics are both intrigued and concerned by the transformative impact of these technologies on the olfactory art landscape. Olfactory artists worldwide have crafted works that harness digital olfaction technology and engage with its implications. Meanwhile, industry academics continue to investigate intersections between the digitization of scent and its practical applications. Such endeavors in olfactory art include a multimedia artist in New York creating an installation titled Adnose—a wall-mounted mega nose enabled to utilize Computer Vision and OpenAI’s GPT-4 system to identify the scent of any item placed under one nostril before its other nostril prints out a description of the aroma just detected.

Adnose, Adnan Aga

Yet, the digital transformation of this field in particular also compels a confrontation of the associated legal and intellectual property challenges in olfactory art and its future. In the United States, scents can be legally protected via multiple avenues: trademark, which safeguards marks; copyright, which grants exclusive rights to authors for their original, creative works; patent, which protects inventions that are novel, useful, and non-obvious; and trade secret, which preserves information that draws its value from remaining confidential. The real challenge with evaluating digital olfaction and its use and impacts in olfactory art is the murkiness in applying legal concepts to artworks with “undefinedboundaries — a process often resulting in resistance and confusion. But, the digitization of scent may still hold some positives, such as the potential of addressing the fixation issue in the copyrightability of olfactory artworks. However, this application must be considered alongside potential drawbacks for the olfactory art community. As digital olfaction progresses, the reverse engineering of previously safeguarded scents could jeopardize their protection.

What do olfactory artists think about these unfolding legal dynamics? Are they concerned about the impacts of the technology their peers are already engaging with? Let’s ask them: 

In a recent interview, New York-based interdisciplinary art duo Matthew Leonard Hoyt Scott and Zachary Adams expressed their reservations about what the digitization of scent may mean for legal protections in olfactory artworks. Adams stated, “We are seeing it more and more, but there is still time before digital olfaction is fully integrated into the field. It feels like the two ends—olfactory artists getting excited about engaging with or using scent digitization versus the threat aspect in terms of formulation—might be pulling away from each other.” Scott added, “Though the applications of digital olfaction in art have yet to prove their utility in terms of actual aesthetics, they could otherwise be helpful as a future tool, but let’s see.” 

Gayil Nalls, an olfactory art pioneer, theorist, and interdisciplinary artist, sees the challenges of the digitization of scent as going beyond intellectual property issues, touching upon regulatory, policy, and environmental considerations. 

When asked about the negative legal consequences scent digitization might bring, Nalls shared, “It’s not going to stop olfactory art from being produced but the scale is likely going to be damaging to artists, and perfumeries.” For Nalls, the protection of artist-created works is extremely important, but the situation is complex beyond the position of the lone artist. She urges the need to think critically about the technology’s broader implications. Highlighting a holistic perspective on digital olfaction, Nalls emphasized over email, “Artificial intelligence can create a pleasing perfume but can it tell us the effects of the perfume’s chemical composition on our health and on the environment? Will the millions of new compounds AI has invented, that humans have yet to smell, disrupt the biology of smell, the chemical communication channels within our bodies, and upend the chemical interactions among organisms and their environment?” During our interview, Nalls raised concerns about AI-generated chemicals manipulating the balance of our ecosystem’s natural chemicals. Nalls warned against an unregulated generation of AI-created scents and underscored the need for society, and the United States government, to recognize and address these risks. This warning centers on the “millions of novel AI chemicals further overwhelming the function and significance of natural chemicals, such as plant secondary metabolites, that mediate earth systems.” When discussing the volume dangers of scent privatization, Nalls observed that the process “encourages AI to spit them[scents] out all day long,” which remains a looming threat if there isn’t an acknowledgment of the harms of such processes.

The digitization of scent may mean an exciting path forward for olfactory art but requires a careful, measured evaluation of potential legal challenges for artists and the impacts such technology will continue to have on the world around us. Understanding digital olfaction’s legal, social, and environmental implications is essential, and it requires a devotion of resources to accommodate the pace with which the digital olfaction industry is expanding. As digital olfaction becomes more prominent, collaboration among United States policymakers, legal scholars, and artists is imperative to shape our shared future in an ethically responsible way.