Federal Courts to Move to PDF/A for CM/ECF Filings

by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C.

Federal court practitioner are now well-familiar with the CM/ECF, which allows parties to file documents in a PDF format on-line rather than hand-filing them with the Clerk of Court. In an effort to improve its archiving and preservation of its records and to address concerns over new features that have been incorporated into the PDF format, federal courts will require filers to submit documents in the PDF/A format. The courts have not all set a timeline for implementing these changes, but the Western District of Pennsylvania will require all uploads to be in this format after January 1, 2012.

PDF/A is an International Standards Organization (ISO) approved version of the popular Adobe PDF format designed for archival purposes. It is a self-contained file, which means that it does not rely on external media players or hyperlinks outside of the documents. In addition, it embeds all of the fonts used in the document inside the file, so the recipient need not have any of the fonts installed on his or her computer. It also prevents security measures of any kind (such as passwords).  It appears that the federal courts will be using the minimal PDF/A-1b “flavor” of PDF/A, rather than the full PDF/A-1a “flavor,” which is more exacting.

As the PDF format has evolved, it has incorporated some new features that raised concerns, such as the ability to monitor when a document is read and the ability to incorporate active software inside the file. In theory, by moving to the PDF/A format, electronically-filed documents will be more accessible in the future and less dependent on technologies or features that may become unsupported.

Federal courts currently will accept PDF/A files, but do not yet require them. As practitioners are preparing for the transition to only PDF/A files, they should be aware of a number of changes that will result from this shift:

  1. Because all of the fonts will be embedded into the file, file sizes will be larger. In addition, some specialized fonts will not allow programs to embed them in the PDF/A file or require an additional license to do so. Use of these fonts will be problematic and may have to be avoided.
  2. Hyperlinking to webpages, judicial decisions, and other hypermedia is not possible because the file must be self-contained. Content rich briefs and exhibits will be more difficult to create, and, in particular, one will have to be careful in creating exhibits that contain these items (such as copies of webpages or electronically-downloaded caselaw). While some courts may allow exceptions to this limitation, one should not count on regularly being able to obtain these.
  3. Passwords and other security features are not permitted. The purpose of switching to PDF/A is to make the files as accessible as possible for as long as possible. Passwords and other security measures interfere with that goal.
  4. PDF/A requires the presence of certain meta-data to verify conformance with the standard. For firms with systems that automatically strip meta-data, care will have to be taken so as not to render PDF/A files non-conforming in the process.

For further information, you can see:

  • Federal Court announcement of the change
  • Adobe Acrobat for Legal Professionals blog posts on this topic 1, 2, 3, 4
  • ISO 19005-1:2005 FAQ describing the standard (downloads FAQ)
  • PDF/A compliance organization FAQ

Update: See this later post for additional information on the PDF/A transition.

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3 responses to “Federal Courts to Move to PDF/A for CM/ECF Filings

  1. Pingback: Update: What You Need to Know About PDF/A ECF Filings in Federal Court | PIT IP Tech Blog

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