PDFs Are Terrible

At Open Law Lab, Margaret Hagan makes a really good point:

Please, legal authors & publishers of great content, unbury your content — let it free — make it usable for your target audiences. Take the text and images out of the pdf, and lay it out in a webpage with HTML.

PDFs are great for documents that need to look as close to exactly the same on every screen and printer. But they aren’t great for reading unless you print them out. Try reading a PDF on your smartphone, for example. Or searching a PDF that wasn’t OCR’d. Or closing a long PDF and trying to pick it up where you left off. Now do the same with a responsive website — or better yet, using Instapaper or Pocket.

So why, Margaret wants to know, is so much legal information — court opinions,1 know-your-rights explainers, legal information — hidden away in PDFs? It’s a good question.

Before you put a PDF on your website, ask yourself if it is the kind of document that is primarily meant to be printed, or whether people are likely to want to be able to read it on a screen. If it’s the latter (which is usually the case), follow Margaret’s advice and publish it as a web page, with the PDF available for download for those who want it.

  1. I wanted to read every Supreme Court opinion from the last term, for example, but they are all locked away in PDFs. 


  1. Avatar Len Turkel says:

    These are good, valid points. However, in the real world when you look at normal workflow, Portable Document Format is now ingrained in law practice culture. Many firms have financially invested in both Adobe and third-party products to produce and manipulate the files. It has become the defacto standard for publishing shareable documents. I don’t see it quietly fading away, or attorneys sharing documents with opposing counsel as a web page.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      Nobody is suggesting PDF should go away, or that you would want to use a web page to share a document with opposing counsel.

      The point is that PDF is actually a terrible way to “publish shareable documents.” PDFs are excellent if you want to file a complaint, but if you want to share information with someone, a web page is much better.

  2. Avatar jameskatt says:

    I prefer reading PDFs both in printed form and on-screen – on my desktop Mac, Macbook Pro Retina, iPad, and iPhone 6+. They make it easy to read. On a high resolution “Retina” display, the output is simply equivalent to the printed output.

    Reasons to prefer PDFs versus Web Pages:

    1. PDFs can be ANNOTATED. You can highlight sections. You can add your own notes. You can draw circles and other graphics on the PDF.

    2. Your annotations can be EXTRACTED into a separate file using an app like SKIM. This allows you to condense the data into what is important.

    3. PDFs can also read ALOUD by various apps such as vBookz or iBooks or the Kindle App. So you can listen to the document while driving or doing some other activity.

    4. PDFs can be converted to other formats: Word format or Text by Adobe Acrobat, ePub and other ebook formats by Calibre and other apps, etc.

    5. PDFs can be SEARCHED. A large collection of PDFs can be searched in DevonThink (with ranking for relevance) or even with the native Mac OS’s search facility to find the data you want.

    6. PDFs can be BOOKMARKED. So you CAN open up a PDF and start off where you left off. Further, you can create numerous bookmarks, each with a specific name. This allows you to create your own structure to the information.

    7. COLLECTING AND LOCALLY ANALYZING DATA: Web pages are useful if it is part of a large database of information that you can search online. You can copy and paste the data your find locally onto your computer. But if you want to collect the information on your computer, then search and analyze the data locally, Web pages are not as useful as PDFs.

  3. Avatar Jeff Taylor says:

    I think a point missing is that unless the PDF is actually OCR, it’s basically worthless for anything other than viewing. We assume most PDF documents are, but I’ve seen too many that don’t have any OCR capability — I’ve even created some myself.

    Without OCR, the PDF can’t be easily annotated, extracted, verbalized, searched, or converted. It’s exactly like a piece of paper sitting on a desk, except maybe worse.

    @jameskatt:disqus has a lot of valid points, and certainly makes great arguments for PDF, but as for web format, I think HTML is a much better solution. Google will index the information for further search, if needed, “readability” is possible, and you can extract or save the information to other program (e.g. Evernote or Word) for use in different ways. Admittedly there’s no annotation function, but you could convert the page to a different format (PDF) and continue.

  4. Avatar Len Turkel says:

    Jeffrey, that’s why many law firms have automated PDF creation. They use Acrobat or third-party programs to ensure the OCR process is run when files are produced. PDF is now the standard because in addition to file sharing, it facilitates discovery document review. If a judge requires file delivery, PDF is often the delivery format.

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