Notwithstanding the decision of the Courts as to the question of ownership of plans, we find clients still contending for what they regard as their legal right, and the architect as pertinaciously maintaining the usage of the profession in declining to part with documents prepared for his own special use. One would have thought that, after the many disputed cases that have been decided on this question, architects would have shown their appreciation of the old maxim, 'Discretion is the better part of valor,' by making it a stipulation in their agreements with building owners that all designs and drawings they prepare should be retained by them, in case of the abandonment of the work from any cause. As 'custom' of the profession in this particular matter has been overruled, and the profession have been straightly told by judges of the law that any rules they make among themselves have no binding force beyond their own societies, it seems all the stranger that members should go on incurring the risk of making claims which they cannot maintain. The property in plans, particular rates of commission, the authority of the architect to bind his employer by all acts and orders, as a general agent, and other matters, are points which are continually being brought before courts of law with the presumption that, owing to the uncertainty of the law, the conflicting opinions of judges and juries, what has been decided before may be reversed. And it is in this 'glorious uncertainty of the law' that the disputants and their advisers try their luck, even after the points have been theoretically decided against them.
We have not yet very clear legal definitions of the duties of architects in regard to this matter. There are numerous instances where the architect's drawings and specifications are abandoned through want of funds, or some other reason, and where the client claims the drawings prepared when he pays for them. He supposes he has a right to the work which is represented in the drawings; he thinks, naturally, that when he comes to build he can use them, or at any rate, they will be of service. With a strange perversity such men do not understand what they pay an architect for -- namely, his brains and experience -- in other words, a design; for the time he has taken in preparing necessary drawings to assist him in carrying out the work, and that if he parts with these, he is throwing away his chance of employment another day.
To read more, see "The Ownership of Drawings," The American Architect and Building News 55:1100 (23 January 1897): p. 29.