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Family of late comedian George Carlin sues podcast hosts over AI impression

George Carlin during an appearance appears on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in October 2003. The comedian died in 2008. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images - image credit)
George Carlin during an appearance appears on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in October 2003. The comedian died in 2008. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images - image credit)

The estate of the late comedian George Carlin is suing the team behind a podcast, claiming the hosts used artificial intelligence to create what his family described as a "ghoulish" impersonation of Carlin for a comedy episode.

The lawsuit filed against hosts Chad Kultgen and Will Sasso, the latter of whom is from B.C., said the team infringed on the estate's copyright by using Carlin's life's work to train an AI program in order to impersonate him for the Dudesy podcast's hour-long episode titled "George Carlin: I'm Glad I'm Dead."

"The defendants' AI-generated 'George Carlin Special' is not a creative work. It is a piece of computer-generated clickbait which detracts from the value of Carlin's comedic works and harms his reputation," reads the lawsuit filed in California last week.

"It is a casual theft of a great American artist's work."

The case is another instance of artificial intelligence testing copyright laws.

Writers from comedian Sarah Silverman to Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, as well as publications like The New York Times, have filed suit against tech companies accused of using their work without permission to train AI programs.

Podcast never asked permission, daughter says

The Dudesy special, published Jan. 9, begins with a Carlin-like voice saying, "I'm sorry it took me so long to come out with new material, but I do have a pretty good excuse. I was dead."

Through the rest of the episode, the AI character reflects on topics that have been prevalent in American culture since Carlin's death in 2008 — including Taylor Swift, gun culture and the role of artificial intelligence in society.

The special has since been hidden from the public on YouTube.

Kultgen and Sasso have not responded to the estate's lawsuit in court.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 17: Kelly Carlin-McCall attends Q&A for special screening of the HBO documentary film "George Carlin's American Dream", a part of the Spring 2022 season of Pure Nonfiction on May 17, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for HBO)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 17: Kelly Carlin-McCall attends Q&A for special screening of the HBO documentary film "George Carlin's American Dream", a part of the Spring 2022 season of Pure Nonfiction on May 17, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for HBO)

'It's so ghoulish. It's so creepy,' said Kelly Carlin-McCall, pictured here in New York City in May 2022, of the AI-generated voice of her late father used in the Dudesy podcast. (Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

In an interview with CBC's As It Happens earlier this month, Carlin's daughter said the podcasters never contacted her family or asked permission to use her father's likeness. She said the recording left her feeling like she needed to protect her late father and the pride he took in creating his own comedic material.

"This is not my father. It's so ghoulish. It's so creepy," Kelly Carlin-McCall said of the AI-generated voice.

"I'm not OK with this. I would like them to apologize and say, 'Well, it was just a wild experiment and it didn't work and we apologize' and pull it down."

The show is hosted by Sasso, who was born in Delta, B.C., and Kultgen, an American writer and producer. An artificial-intelligence personality named Dudesy writes and controls the experimental program and acts as a third host, chatting with the two humans throughout the show.

In the lawsuit, Carlin's estate claimed the show made unauthorized copies of the comedian's copyrighted work to train Dudesy to create the hour-long special. It also claimed the podcast used Carlin's name and likeness without permission, including for Instagram posts promoting the episode.

Law not keeping pace with tech

Courts have seen a wave of lawsuits as rapidly developing, easily accessible AI makes it easy to recreate a person's likeness.

"It's historically been common for people to do impersonations or mimic someone's style, and that has historically been allowed under copyright law," said Ryan Abbott, a partner at Los Angeles-based law firm Brown Neri Smith & Khan who specializes in intellectual property.

"But now you have AI systems that can do it in such a convincing way — someone might not be able to tell a synthetic person from a real person. It's also something people are increasingly doing without permission."

As usual, he added, the law hasn't kept pace with developing tech.

"Because this is so new, courts haven't weighed in yet on the degree to which these things are permissible," Abbott said.

"It is going to be a long time before these cases make their way through courts and, in the meantime, there is a lot of uncertainty around what people are allowed to do."

LISTEN | Carlin's daughter discuss podcast using father's likeness:

Sasso and Kultgen have said they can't disclose which company created Dudesy because there is a non-disclosure agreement in place.

Carlin, 71, was widely recognized for his provocative counter-culture standup routines over his 50-year career. He was honoured with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, appeared on The Tonight Show more than 100 times and received four Grammy Awards for his work in comedy.

Carlin died of heart failure at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. on June 22, 2008.