The estate of comedian George Carlin has sued the Dudesy podcast and its hosts Will Sasso and Chad Kultgen for copyright infringement over an episode they released Jan. 9 titled “George Carlin Resurrected.” The show said it used artificial intelligence to develop what a Carlin comedy special would sound like more than 16 years after his death, including what the lawsuit says is a “sound-alike” voice to perform the script.
“None of the defendants had permission to use Carlin’s likeness for the AI-generated “George Carlin Special,” nor did they have a license to use any of the late comedian’s copyrighted materials,” says the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. In addition to the copyright infringement, the estate claims the AI-generated Carlin podcast “may also deter younger audiences, who are unfamiliar with George Carlin, from engaging with his real work that is his legacy,” adding, “Defendants must be held accountable for adding new, fake content to the canon of work associated with Carlin without his permission or that of his estate.”
Just how much AI was, or was not involved, is not clear and it could be a factor in how the case moves forward. The podcast episode opens with a disclosure that features a computerized voice that says all of Carlin’s material was ingested by AI software with the result being a script that imitates his cadence and attitude about “the subject matter I think would have interested him today” and a voice that was admittedly imitating that of the late comedian.
But in a follow-up Dudesy podcast episode released on January 16 titled “A.I. Carlin Explained,” Kultgen told listeners that “anyone could have made [the Carlin episode] with technology that is readily available to every person on planet Earth right now.” But he also suggested that the special was not, in fact, written by AI but rather the technology was only used to create a Carlin-like voice to read the script written by humans, not AI.
While impressions are usually protected from copyright actions, the Carlin estate is pushing back against the idea that the podcast episode is not all that different than what a “human impressionist” would have developed and it has “no comedic or creative value” since it does not satirize Carlin as a performer.
“The Dudesy Special is an output generated by a technological process that is an unlawful appropriation of Carlin’s identity, which also damages the value of Carlin’s real work and his legacy,” its lawsuit says. “Thus, whether the Dudesy Special is indeed, from start to finish, the product of an artificial intelligence or simply relies on AI-powered tools to help a human better imitate George Carlin, the result is ultimately the same.”
While the show likely saw the episode as an homage to the comedian, Carlin’s daughter Kelly Carlin has slammed the podcast. “My dad spent a lifetime perfecting his craft from his very human life, brain and imagination. No machine will ever replace his genius,” she wrote in a post on social media. “These AI generated products are clever attempts at trying to recreate a mind that will never exist again. Let’s let the artist’s work speak for itself. Humans are so afraid of the void that we can’t let what has fallen into it stay there,” she said.
The estate is asking a federal judge to order the show immediately remove, take down, and destroy any audio or video copies. In addition to naming Sasso and Kultgen, the lawsuit also targets 20 “John Does” including five creators associated with the AI program and 15 individuals tied to the “creation, production and sponsorship” of the special.
While the podcast remains available, the show has taken down a video version of the episode from YouTube.
The lawsuit comes as content creators face an uncertain future as AI is able to ingest their work and repurpose it, for what at the moment is no recourse.
“AI may be the most important technology invented in generations, and therefore requires a great amount of control and restraint to ensure that it is not misused,” said Carlin family attorney Josh Schiller in a statement to Law.com. “We risk it becoming a tool that allows bad-faith actors to replace creative expression, to exploit the already existing work of creators, and to get rich at the expense of others. This case is not just about AI, it’s about the humans that use AI to violate the law, infringe on intellectual property rights and flout common decency.”