Estates of Robin Williams, George Carlin sue Pandora over comedy rights

They accuse Pandora of failing to properly pay comedians for their jokes.

Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

Spotify isn't the only streaming service to face a dispute with comedians. Both Puck and The Verge have learned the estates of Robin Williams and George Carlin have sued SiriusXM's Pandora for allegedly streaming the comedy legends' jokes without full licenses. The late comedians' representatives claim Pandora only has the licenses to stream the recordings, not the jokes themselves — and it supposedly doesn't have "any copyright."

Williams' estate wants $4.1 million in damages for copyright infringement, while Carlin's is seeking $8.4 million. Comedians Andrew Dice Clay, Bill Engvall and Ron White have also made complaints, asserting Pandora hasn't provided a "fraction of a penny" for their work.

The estates claim Pandora confessed to having improper licenses in SEC filings between 2011 and 2017, predating SiriusXM's acquisition. In those filings, the service warned investors it couldn't guarantee the company would avoid "additional licensing costs" from rights groups for spoken-word comedy. Companies frequently include risk alerts like this in filings regardless of their licensing intentions, however.

We've asked SiriusXM for comment. Pandora isn't a stranger to license battles. It paid $90 million in 2015 to settle a fight over allegations it used a loophole to play pre-1972 songs without paying labels, and was sued in 2019 for supposedly displaying lyrics from Rage Against the Machine and Tom Petty without permission. But comedy licensing problems haven't had a firm test in court, according to Puck, and the outcome of the Pandora case could affect how Spotify and other services pay comedians for their work.