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  • Writer's pictureJenny Rozelle, Host of Legal Tea

Celebrity Estate Planning - George Carlin - Episode 144

Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners! This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. We’re back to the “celebrity estate planning” topic and for today’s episode, we’re going to dive into what happened following the death of George Carlin. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty terrible with celebrity names – Like when people are like, “Oh that’s the movie with Mel Gibson in it” or insert mainly any celebrity name into that sentence, and I’m not going to know it or the name. So, I say that to basically say, “Does everyone know who George Carlin is?” I don’t know – so if not, George is a well-known comedian and actor and we’ll get into him personally more in a second, but today’s episode is an interesting one because just a few episodes ago, I did an episode on the lawyer and publicist who represents dead celebrities, Mark Roesler –well, George’s estate is a perfect example of perhaps Mark’s work for dead celebrities like George. Now, I don’t think Mark actually represented George’s Estate, but just to help you connect some dots – I thought that’d be cool to mention.

Like we always do on celebrity estate planning episodes, let’s talk a little about George as a person first then dive into his estate and what happened. According to his Wikipedia page, George was born and raised in Manhattan, New York. After a bit of a troubled upbringing, he had a brief stint in the US Air Force. He was ultimately discharged after, according to his Wikipedia page, many of his superiors said he was an “unproductive airman.” Thereafter, Geroge met a guy by the name of Jack Burns, who was a DJ at a radio station in Texas. Well, the two of them formed a comedy team – they were successful and took their show to California in 1960.

This was really George’ introduction into the tv and comedy space – so it’s worth noting, for sure. That ultimately lead him to frequently perform and do the guest hosting on The Tonight Show (some with Jack Paar as host and later with Johnny Carson as well as he was casted in Away We Go, which was a comedy show on CBS. That was in mid and late 1960s, so things were happening kind of quickly (and for the good) for George! From there, things took off for George (in both the acting and comedy spaces) – in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and into the 2000s, where he did some headlining in Las Vegas and some HBO specials.

More personally speaking, according to Wikipedia, George was just getting his career started in the 1960s when he met his first wife, Brenda, while he had stopped at a diner on tour. The started dating and later-married in mid-1961. Together, they had one child, a girl, named Kelly. (Fun little fact: Kelly ended up becoming a radio host, so it must “run in the family.”) It’s reported that George really struggled with alcohol and drug use and abuse, and that Brenda herself battled an alcohol addiction. Eventually, George and Brenda both attempted to deal with their addictions and according to Wikipedia, the marriage improved and according to their daughter, Kelly, their marriage felt like it had been rebooted. Unfortunately, however, Brenda ended up getting diagnosed and died from liver cancer in 1997. Her death came the day before George turned 60.

George met his second wife, Sally, shortly after Brenda died and after dealing with some guilt of moving on perhaps quickly after Brenda’s death, they ended up getting married in mid-1998 and remained married until George’s death in 2008. George had experienced frequent heart issues throughout a lot of his life – he actually, according to Wikipedia, had heart attacks in 1978, 1982, and 1991 – then additional heart-related episodes until his death, really. George ended up dying on June 22, 2008 at the age of 71 due to heart failure. Sadly, his death occurred a mere one week after his final performance, which was held at The Orleans Hotel and Casino located in Las Vegas. After his death, an estate plan was located – so yay! Good for George for doing some estate planning. Let’s shift to that now…

So, usually in these episodes, I dive in deep into their estate plan and who-got-what, but on today’s episode, like I mentioned at the beginning, what I want to talk about is what proceeded after George’s death specifically regarding AI (artificial intelligence) and his Estate. In January of this year, 2024, George’s Estate, through his Executor, Jerold Hamza, filed a lawsuit against Will Sasso, Chad Kultgen, and the LLC for their podcast, Dudesy LLC, alleging that they “infringed on the estate’s copyrights by training an A.I. algorithm on five decades of [George’s] work for the special ‘George Carlin: I’m Glad I’m Dead’ which was posted on YouTube.” The lawsuit further argued that they had “illegally used [George’s] name and likeness.” I actually found the Court document and I linked in it the source links for the episode – really encourage you to skim it. Interesting stuff and arguments in it!

So, this is being discussed as one of the first estate cases, if not THE first, that has dealt head-on with artificial intelligence and it being used for deceased celebrities. In the Court document, the Complaint states, “More than 16 years later [referring to 16 years after George’s death], the Defendants took it upon themselves to ‘resurrect’ [George] with the aid of artificial intelligence (“AI”). Using [George’s] original copyrighted works, [the Defendants] created a script for a fake George Carlin comedy special and generated a sound-alike of George Carlin to ‘perform’ the generated script.” Perhaps inappropriately, they named this comedy special “George Carlin Special – I’m Glad I’m Dead.” Ouch. I’m sure that didn’t land well for George’s family and friends.

The Complaint further scolds the Defendants (and in a “whoa! Burn!” moment) says, “Defendants’ AI-generated ‘George Carlin Special’ is not a creative work. It is a piece of computer-generated click-bait which detracts from the value of [George’s] comedic works and harms his reputation. It is a casual theft of a great American artist’s work. … Defendants must be held accountable for adding new, fake content to the canon of work associated with [George]  without his permission (or that of his estate).” Wow! Burn, right? I liked the “casual theft” piece. What a great example of great lawyering – sometimes, lawyers have to tell a story and this, my friends, is some excellent story-telling. They further bring in George’s daughter, Kelly, and add her thoughts to the matter – she, of course, comes to her Dad’s defense and shares, “My Dad spent a lifetime perfecting his craft from his very human life, brain, and imagination. No machine will ever replicate his genius.”

The Complaint is 23 pages – and like I said, it’s really interesting. They dive into various important facts to support their case. Like one interesting little tidbit I saw was that the same podcast/hosts did something similar to Tom Brady. It shared that the same company/hosts (prior to the George Carlin Special), created an AI-generated standup comedy routine about Tom Brady, but after Tom threatened to sue, it was taken down. Unfortunately, however, it’s not difficult nor does it take a lot of time for someone to save the video and just re-upload the video – which is what happened to Tom Brady. The “routine” is still on YouTube – Dudesy took it down, but someone copied it and uploaded it.

Ultimately, what happened in the case with George’s Estate, is that the parties settled. So litigation started in January and there was word of a settlement by April the same year (2024). While many parts of the settlement agreement are private and therefore are unknown, there are a few things that have been released and reported. First, the podcast creators, Sasso and Kultgen, agreed to remove the George Carlin Special permanently and agreed to never post it again on any other platform. They further agreed to never use George’s name and likeness on any platform without the prior approval of George’s estate.

Now, a few things we do NOT know are … well, first, we do not know if the settlement ended with any money to be paid to George’s estate, as in monetary damages owed from the podcast/hosts to George’s estate. We are not sure. In fact, one of the attorneys declined to comment or elaborate on it. So, we will probably never know if there was money exchanged -or- if George’s estate did it to stop it/prove a point. The estate’s attorney did release a statement hinting at a few things that I think are going to be really hot button issues in the legal space as it relates to AI – He said, “The world has begun to appreciate the power and potential dangers inherent in A.I. tools, which can mimic voices, generate fake photographs, and alter video. This is not a problem that will go away by itself. It must be confronted with swift, forceful action in the Court, and the A.I. software companies whose technology is being weaponized must also bear some measure of accountability.”

Now, Kelly, George’s daughter, echoed many of the same things that the estate’s attorney said, she says, “While it is a shame that this happened at all, I hope this case serves as a warning about the dangers posed by A.I. technologies and the need for appropriate safeguards.” I really think that between the estate’s attorney’s statement and Kelly’s statement – that is a great way to wrap up this episode. As you already know, artificial intelligence is here – and many people and places are trying to figure out where it “fits into” this world. Of course, we often get better direction about this sort of stuff by Courts and cases, unfortunately, because that is what guides us on what is wrong, what is okay, what is acceptable, etc. So, I think as Kelly mentions, I’m sure she wishes it didn’t happen at all, but from my seat, I’m over thinking, “It was only a matter of time before something like this happened in the estate field.” It also likely won’t be the last….

Alrighty, I think we’re ready to wrap this episode up. Next week we’re back to a “cautionary tale” episode where we talk about real-life clients, real-life cases that I, or my office, have worked on -or- maybe they are just generally good things to know/be aware of so you don’t slip up and turn into a cautionary tale one day. Always good stuff on those episodes! So, I asked for some suggestions on future topics – and someone mentioned that I should do something on “Top 5 (or whatever number) that other professionals (like a financial advisor or accountant) make when it comes to estate planning.” I love that. I may name it something a bit more friendly, but maybe I won’t too! Alrighty, talk to you next week – take care and be well!



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