George Carlin Estate Sues Creators of AI-Generated Comedy Special in Key Lawsuit Over Stars’ Likenesses

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George Carlin’s estate is suing over the release of a comedy special that uses generative artificial intelligence to mimic the deceased comedian’s voice and style of humor.

The lawsuit, filed in California federal court Thursday, accuses the creators of the special of utilizing without consent or compensation George Carlin’s entire body of work consisting of five decades of comedy routines to train an AI chatbot, which wrote the episode’s script. It also takes issue with using his voice and likeness for promotional purposes.

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The complaint seeks a court order for immediate removal of the special, as well as unspecified damages. It’s among the first legal actions taken by the estate of a deceased celebrity for unlicensed use of their work and likeness to manufacture a new, AI-generated creation and was filed as Hollywood is sounding the alarm over utilization of AI to impersonate people without consent or compensation.

Author and producer Kelly Carlin, daughter of George Carlin, said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, “We have to draw a line in the sand.” She stressed, “This is going to be a fight on every front, with entertainment at the center.”

The legal battle stems from an hourlong special, titled George Carlin: I’m Glad I’m Dead, that was released Jan. 9 on the YouTube channel of Dudesy, a podcast hosted by Will Sasso and Chad Kultgen. It’s described as a “first of its kind media experiment.” The show’s premise revolves around using an AI program called “Dudsey AI” — which has access to most of the host’s personal records, including text messages, social media accounts and browsing histories — to write, create and control episodes in the style of Sasso and Kultgen, who are named in the complaint.

In the special, an AI-generated George Carlin, imitating the comedian’s signature style and cadence, narrates commentary over images created by AI and tackles modern topics such as the prevalence of reality TV, streaming services and AI itself. Most subjects came to mainstream prominence after he died in 2008.

According to the complaint, the special was created through unauthorized use of Carlin’s copyrighted works.

At the start of the video, it’s explained that the AI program that created the special ingested five decades of Carlin’s original stand-up routines, which are owned by the comedian’s estate, as training materials, “thereby making unauthorized copies” of the copyrighted works.

A major obstacle in suits filed against OpenAI and Meta by creators alleging copyright infringement has been proving that their tools used plaintiffs’ works as training materials. Given that AI models are largely black boxes, there’s no definitive proof that can be offered to prove that a specific work was used in a chatbot’s creation (OpenAI stopped disclosing information about the sources of its data set after it was sued).

The suit alleges that Sasso and Kultgen “admitted that they input thousands of hours of George Carlin’s original, copyrighted routines to an AI machine,” with the aim of fabricating the comedian’s voice and style.

George Carlin’s estate also claims violations of right of publicity laws for use of Carlin’s name and likeness. It points to promotion of the special as an AI-generated George Carlin installment, where the deceased comedian was “resurrected” with the use of AI tools.

“In short, Defendants sought to capitalize on the name, reputation, and likeness of George Carlin in creating, promoting, and distributing the Dudesy Special and using generated images of Carlin, Carlin’s voice, and images designed to evoke Carlin’s presence on a stage,” the complaint states.

The suit anticipates a potential First Amendment defense. It says the special “has no comedic or creative value absent its self-proclaimed connection with George Carlin” and does not, for example, “satirize him as a performer or offer an independent critique of society.”

The complaint argues that the AI-generated work may deter younger audiences, who are unfamiliar with the comedian and may not have liked the special, from engaging with his real body of work. It says the installment “misrepresents Carlin’s art” and “takes the introduction of Carlin’s work away from where it properly lies — with the words of his real work and the owners of its copyrights — and puts it into the hands” of Sasso and Kultgen, who have said they cannot disclose the name of the company that created and programed the Dudesy AI.

While the special was not monetized through advertisements, the suit claims that its creators looked to boost their profiles with the episode.

“If more people saw Dudesy’s content based on Defendants’ exploitation of George Carlin’s name, likeness, and copyrighted works, then more people would see advertisements, would hear the paid sponsorships read during the Dudesy podcast episodes, and would have an opportunity to click through the hyperlinks to buy the Defendants’ merchandise and subscribe to Dudesy+,” the complaint states. “In turn, the audience for Dudesy’s offerings would grow, which itself would attract more sponsors.”

Jerry Hamza, George Carlin’s longtime manager and the executor of the comedian’s estate, brings claims for copyright infringement and violations of right of publicity laws. He’s represented by intellectual property lawyer Joshua Schiller, a partner at Boies Schiller Flexner.

“In order to accomplish what they did, they needed to, without permission, take a reputation, a body of work, a voice and a likeness and use it to draw attention to themselves,” he said. “It raises issues of civil and criminal liability under both California and federal statutes regulating rights of publicity and copyright.”

In a post on X (formerly Twitter) after the special was released, Kelly Carlin said that the creators of the special “stepped over a line in the world of comedy today that will surely affect dead artists and their estates now.”

“They’re coming for you next,” she told Robin Williams’ daughter, Zelda, and Joan Rivers’ daughter, Melissa.

There are currently no federal laws covering the use of AI to mimic someone’s likeness or voice. A patchwork of state right of publicity law has filled the void, but there’s little recourse for potential plaintiffs in states that have not passed such statutes.

In response, in part to lobbying from Hollywood, a bipartisan coalition of House lawmakers introduced this month a long-awaited bill to prohibit the publication and distribution of unauthorized digital replicas, including deepfakes and voice clones. The legislation is intended to give individuals the exclusive right to approve the use of their image, voice and visual likeness by conferring intellectual property rights at the federal level. Under the bill, unauthorized uses would be subject to stiff penalties and lawsuits would be able to be brought by any person or group whose exclusive rights were impacted.

If signed into law, the proposal, called the No AI Fraud Act, could curb a growing trend of individuals and businesses creating AI-recorded tracks using artists’ voices and deceptive ads in which it appears a performer is endorsing a product. In the absence of a federal right of publicity law, unions and trade groups in Hollywood have been lobbying for legislation requiring individuals’ consent to use their voice and likeness.

In separate legislation, senators introduced in October a proposal barring the unauthorized use of AI-generated replicas.

“The irony of all of this is that my father was such a unique thinker,” Kelly Carlin said. “One thing he said to people is, ‘Think for yourself,’ and here are these people absorbing his material to try and think like him. It’s the ultimate zombification of a human life.”

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