The WaterRower: A Work of Art “Oar” Not?


Katie Graham is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.


A decision dated August 5, 2022 from the United Kingdom’s High Court of Justice has the potential to expand the definition of “artistic works of craftmanship” under UK copyright law. Deputy High Court Judge Stone rejected a motion by the defendants, Liking Ltd. (“Liking”), to strike out Water Rower (UK) Ltd.’s (“WaterRower”) claim for copyright infringement in its WaterRower water resistance rowing machine on the basis that the machine is not a “work of artistic craftmanship” within the UK’s Copyright Designs and Patents Act.

The Facts at Issue

As a member of the 1975 US National Rowing Team and having studied naval architecture, including wooden boat design, John Duke sought to design a wooden rowing machine in which the user has a “welcome emotional connection, as they would with a piece of furniture”. The first versions of this machine were developed between 1985 and 1987 and, since this time, there have been eight iterations of the WaterRower and it has grown to be an “iconic design” in the UK and US. Liking admitted to copying the eighth iteration of the WaterRower in creating its rival rowing machine, the TOPIOM Model 1. However, Liking argued that since the WaterRower could not be considered a “work of artistic craftmanship,” no copyright subsists in the WaterRower.

Court’s Decision

While the Court did not ultimately conclude whether the WaterRower is a “work of artistic craftmanship” under copyright law, Judge Stone ruled that the question of whether the WaterRower could be considered as such is one that requires a full trial and cannot be determined in summary judgment. This ruling was based on the leading House of Lords authority on works of artistic craftmanship, George Hensher Ltd v Restawile Upholstery (Lancs) Ltd.[1] Though Hensher provides a less than clear definition of what constitutes works of artistic craftmanship, Judge Stone considered that:

  1. The artist’s intention is relevant to whether a work is artistic, and there is evidence about Mr. Duke’s intention as a craftsman; and
  2. It is unclear that the WaterRower is less artistic than the examples of artistic works given by Lord Simon in Hensher, including hand-painted tiles and stained-glass windows.

As such, Judge Stone rejected Liking’s argument under Hensher that, on any view, WaterRower has no real prospect of proving their machine is artistic.

What could this mean for UK and Canadian copyright law?

If the WaterRower is found to be an artistic work of craftmanship at trial, this would indicate that the UK courts are adopting a more flexible definition of “artistic”, especially in relation to functional works that are generally considered more congruent with the patent framework.

In Canadian copyright law, works of artistic craftmanship are generally limited to those “intended to have an appeal to the aesthetic senses” (Cuisenaire v. South West Imports Limited). Given the evidence of John Duke’s intention to create a wooden rowing machine that evokes emotion, the argument could be made that the aesthetic features of the WaterRower are protected under the Canadian copyright regime. However, since the WaterRower has been mass produced for the fitness industry in Canada, the Canadian Industrial Designs Act would intervene and only permit the aesthetic features of the useful machine to be protected, so long as these features are distinctive. To date, neither WaterRower or Liking have applied for design protection in Canada, though other rowing machine designs  have previously been registered in Canada.


[1] George Hensher Ltd v Restawile Upholstery (Lancs) Ltd [1976] AC 64 (“Hensher”).

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