Unpacking AI-Generated George Carlin

Liz Srulevich

Back in 2022, the New York Times published a lengthy report on the “strange afterlife” of George Carlin, examining the comic’s legacy among comedians and non-comedians alike.[1] But arguably the strangest turn of events to have yet marked Carlin’s afterlife occurred on January 9th, when a podcast called Dudesy “resurrected” Carlin with artificial intelligence.[2]

Dudesy apparently accomplished this unsettling feat by training an eponymous AI bot on material from Carlin’s fifty-year career to generate a special, titled “I’m Glad I’m Dead,” where Carlin’s voice performs an hour’s worth of new material.[3] Within a few weeks, Carlin’s outraged estate had filed a lawsuit against those involved, alleging that Dudesy infringed the estate’s copyrights in the bot’s training process, and that the podcast illegally used Carlin’s name, image, and likeness.[4] The estate is primarily seeking to destroy all audio and footage of the special.[5]

There has been no movement in the case since the complaint was filed on January 25th. The only update has come in the form of a January 26th statement from Dudesy co-hosts Will Sasso and Chad Kultgen, made through a representative who announced that the special was actually written entirely by Kultgen, not a bot; the “Dudesy bot” at the center of the podcast was instead what the representative called “a fictional podcast character created by two human beings.”[6]

If it’s true that the special was Kultgen’s own, original creation, not churned out by a machine, then the script itself would likely be copyrightable.[7] That said, Sasso and Kultgen haven’t disclaimed using AI to create the audio for the special, and generating the sound of Carlin’s voice narrating their script would’ve been readily achievable with existing technology. (Consider last year’s drama surrounding a viral track called “Heart on My Sleeve,” which used the voices of Drake and the Weeknd so convincingly that it accumulated hundreds of thousands of listeners on streaming platforms before being identified as an unaffiliated, AI-generated fake.[8]) While “sound-alike” recordings are explicitly allowed under the Copyright Act, there isn’t a clear answer regarding whether AI-generated audio is an acceptable sound-alike or an infringing use of copyrighted works.[9] But regardless—generating audio that imitates someone’s voice would still probably involve the allegedly infringing “training” described by Carlin’s estate, so Dudesy is still facing a substantial challenge in court.

All that aside: it’s hard to believe Carlin’s estate was moved to sue Dudesy purely because of the alleged copyright infringement itself. A likelier story is that Carlin’s estate seeks to hold Dudesy accountable for its non-consensual exploitation of a beloved figure’s legacy. “I’m Glad I’m Dead” was disorientating and creepy at best; at worst, it was what Carlin’s daughter called "a poorly-executed facsimile cobbled together by unscrupulous individuals to capitalize on the extraordinary goodwill my father established with his adoring fanbase."[10]

The lawsuit also plays into an existing panic surrounding advancements in generative AI technology. And Congress is beginning to tackle that panic. One bipartisan proposal dubbed the Nurture Originals, Foster Art, and Keep Entertainment Safe (NO FAKES) Act seems particularly promising.[11] Presented by Senators Chris Coons, Marsha Blackburn, Amy Klobuchar, and Thom Tillis, the NO FAKES Act has two aims: establishing liability for (1) producing unauthorized digital replicas of individuals in a performance, and (2) hosting unauthorized digital replicas.[12] The Act would exclude certain digital replicas based on “recognized First Amendment protections.”[13]

Lawyers and lawmakers: where do we draw the line between exploitation and exploration?


[1] Dave Itzkoff, The Strange Afterlife of George Carlin, N.Y. TIMES (May 11, 2022), https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/11/arts/george-carlin-comedy.html [https://perma.cc/F3F5-4H7U] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240325233030/https://www.nytimes.com/2022/05/11/arts/george-carlin-comedy.html].

[2] Complaint for Damages and Demand for Jury Trial at 10, Main Sequence, Ltd. v. Dudesy, LLC, No. 2:24-cv-00711 (C.D. Cal. Jan 25, 2024) [hereinafter Complaint].

[3] Id. at 12.

[4] Id. at 19–23.

[5] Id. at 22.

[6] Christopher Kuo, George Carlin’s Estate Sues Podcasters Over A.I. Episode, N.Y. TIMES (Jan. 26, 2024), https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/26/arts/carlin-lawsuit-ai-podcast-copyright.html [No Permalink] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240330182339/https://www.nytimes.com/2024/01/26/arts/carlin-lawsuit-ai-podcast-copyright.html].

[7] Copyright Registration Guidance: Works Containing Material Generated by Artificial Intelligence, 88 Fed. Reg. 16190 (Mar. 16, 2023) (to be codified at 37 C.F.R. pt. 202).

[8] Ethan Shanfeld, Ghostwriter’s ‘Heart on My Sleeve,’ the AI-Generated Song Mimicking Drake and the Weeknd, Submitted for Grammys, VARIETY (Sep. 6, 2023 7:38 AM), https://variety.com/2023/music/news/ai-generated-drake-the-weeknd-song-submitted-for-grammys-1235714805/ [https://perma.cc/UDX6-CXVR] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240330182555/https://variety.com/2023/music/news/ai-generated-drake-the-weeknd-song-submitted-for-grammys-1235714805/].

[9] 17 U.S.C. § 114(b).

[10] Kuo, supra note 6.

[11] Nurture Originals, Foster Art, and Keep Entertainment Safe Act of 2023 (NO FAKES Act), S. Legis. Couns. EHF23968 GFW, 118th Cong. (2023).

[12] Id.

[13] Id.