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Here is a true story, torn from the pages of legal life in late 20th century America: An attorney in the mid-1990s sent a summer associate to a client’s office to copy computer files. The lad arrived bearing 3 1/2-inch disks, expecting a quick job followed by the law firm’s happy hour. To his horror, the client’s computer was a technological old-timer that accepted 5 1/4-inch floppy disks. A five-minute job became an afternoon-long ordeal of contacting computer vendors and bringing in an external drive. The point: Technology morphs madly. Today’s wonder is tomorrow’s quaint collectible. Court administrators, consequently, have a big concern about electronic documents. Theoretically, a court could spend untold sums of money on a great new system, only to have it become that unfortunate client’s computer with the 5 1/4-inch disk drive. Court records must remain accessible for years to come no matter what new technology arrives. No clerk of a court wants to turn his venue into the Betamax of courthouses. However, electronic document filing and preservation have many advantages that make it very attractive to lawyers and court administrators. The tremendous ease of filing from the firm is popular with lawyers, and the space savings for the courts would dwarf the savings generated several years ago by the switch from legal-size to letter-size pleadings. Given the appeal of replacing paper with pixels, legal professionals are looking for a way to alleviate concerns about antiquated technology and multiple jurisdictions with multiple platforms. The solution? Advisory committees are considering different formats for use in creating a solution to the law student’s Night of the Living Floppies — a national standard for electronically archived documents. THE CONTENDERS At the moment, there are two likely candidates for such a national standard. First is a version of the familiar Portable Document Format (PDF) designed especially for long-term archiving, called PDF-Archive or PDF-A. The second format is Extensible Markup Language (XML). Introduced in the early 1990s, PDF files revolutionized the electronic transfer of documents. With PDF, documents could now be transferred without regard to platform or software. PDF files are self-contained, cross-platform documents, which in essence means that they can be used by different users regardless of their various types of computers, printers or software. Thus, when a user opens a PDF file, he or she can view the document regardless of whether the word processor is WordPerfect or Microsoft Word, or the computer is an IBM or an Apple. When a user sees a document in a PDF file, it appears just as it did in the original because the user is viewing an image of the original. Some proponents of XML have touted the fact that it is an open, nonproprietary technology that can be used by anyone. The advantage of XML’s open standard may be the mere product of a common misconception. ‘ADOBE DOES NOT OWN PDF’ One of the more popular myths of the computer world is that Adobe Systems Inc., the maker of Adobe Acrobat, owns and controls PDF. “Adobe does not own PDF,” says Melonie Warfel, Adobe’s manager of PDF standards. “There are hundreds of other vendors competing with us in the PDF market, including Apple and Global Graphics.” Europe’s Global Graphics S.A. produces the Jaws line of PDF products, including Jaws PDF Creator, Jaws PDF Editor and Jaws PDF Library. “Apple creates its PDF applications without ever using an Adobe product,” Warfel says to illustrate the lack of any monopoly over PDF. Warfel notes that, while Adobe did develop PDF, it is an open standard, available to anyone. “The PDF Reference Manual with all the published specifications is available at the Adobe Web site,” says Warfel, adding, “It’s even available as a book — it’s in the Library of Congress.” Although Adobe developed the original PDF standard, PDF-A is a joint effort, involving more than 300 people from various organizations, according to Warfel. This joint effort is to establish an international standard for archived documents. “We need something with which people can feel comfortable with their documents and their condition years down the road,” says Warfel. “I need to know that, 50 years from now, when I’m dead, my documents will be OK.” Two trade associations have formed a committee to create an international PDF-A standard. The Association for Information and Image Management International (AIIM) and the Association for Suppliers of Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies (known as NPES after its former name, the National Printing Equipment Association) are developing a proposal to be presented to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Both of the associations are accredited standards organizations, certified by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), according to Betsy Fanning, the director of standards and content development at AIIM. ANSI is the official U.S. representative to the ISO. Based in Geneva, the ISO is an international federation of standards bodies from 145 nations. Although the standards are voluntary unless codified by a governmental organization, they have had a major impact all over the globe. Using ISO standards, such things as the size of credit cards (0.76 millimeters thick), film speeds and the symbols for automobile controls are standardized all over the world. Theoretically, if an ISO standard were developed for the filing of court documents, pleadings could be transferred between courts all over the world. However, PDF-A is not the only game in town. Some observers see the future of document preservation in XML. Organizations such as Legal XML, an association of almost 900 industry, government, nonprofit and academic organizations, promote an open platform featuring XML. WHAT XML OFFERS XML is an application profile or restricted version of the Standardized General Markup Language. XML documents consist of storage units called “entities,” which include parsed and unparsed data. The documents also contain “markup,” which encodes the document’s makeup and logical structure. Where PDF provides a scanned version of text or graphics, XML actually takes the data from an image of texts or graphics and catalogs and stores them. In XML, data are, in essence, tagged for later use. By cataloging data in this manner, XML makes various functions, such as searching for key words, easier. For a deputy clerk working in a courthouse file room, XML’s exceptional cataloging and archiving abilities make it a popular choice. However, PDF-A’s ability to recreate the original image is important for a legal document where a caption can be critical. However, Adobe’s Warfel doesn’t see a competition between the two standards. “I don’t see the two competing in any way, shape or form,” says Warfel. “They actually complement each other.” Warfel says XML’s ability to catalog and exchange data would complement a PDF-A standard. “With court documents, it’s important to retain the look and the feel of the document,” says Warfel, citing the need for PDF-A. “If you want to retain that look and feel with such things as headings, case captions and sidebars — that’s not XML.” Others agree that there is room for both PDF-A and XML in a possible standard. “They work well together,” says Fanning, who, in addition to her duties at AIIM, is co-administrator of what is known as the PDF-A Project. When asked whether XML would be included in the PDF-A Project’s proposal, Fanning responds, “It could be,” adding that XML was being included in the project’s work groups. David Kilgore, director of computer affairs for the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management at Rice University, notes that, “In XML format, the potential for document manipulation is greater than in PDF-A.” But Kilgore does not necessarily think that this potential would make it a greater security risk. In its October 2002 organizational meeting in Washington, D.C., the PDF-A Project established 13 working groups to work on the technical requirements and, eventually, the business requirements for an international standard. The group met in December, and will meet again this month. Although there is a timetable for continued meetings and work on proposed standards, the fruition of an international standard will take some time. The goal is to have an international standard by early 2005. That date may sound far off, but Fanning says there are many issues to be considered. “The ISO has technical committees to consider proposed standards,” Fanning says. “They also have to make sure they’ve allowed the member states of the ISO to have a say-so and vote on the document.” The federal government is addressing the document preservation and standards issue as well. The Library of Congress heads the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, commonly known as the Digital Preservation Program. The program seeks to develop digital preservation strategies to address what it calls an “urgent need” to preserve information “before it is forever lost.” STANDARD SOON? It may be some time, indeed, before the courts adopt any standard. Although Fanning notes that more courts are accepting PDF documents as court filings, the switch to e-filing is by no means complete, much less is there any sort of standard. State courts are not on the verge of any sort of standard, according to Jim McMillan, technical lab director for the National Center for State Courts. “I haven’t heard of anyone adopting a PDF-A standard,” says McMillan. “We just had a legal XML meeting last month. None of the state courts were talking about adopting a standard,” he adds, speculating, “Maybe the federal court guys are.” The federal court guys aren’t. “We’re nowhere near making any sort of recommendation or formulating any standard,” says Karen Redmond of the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, adding, “We don’t have a Judicial Conference recommendation — we’re just not there yet.” Until then, the committees will continue to meet, hoping to prevent the horror of antiquated technology resulting in future courthouses chock full of unreadable documents. Without some sort of standard for archived documents, those future documents may be about as useful as a video deposition recorded on a Super 8 camera — with optional audio tapes available on 8-track, of course. Michael Ravnitzky conducted preliminary research for this article.

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