☆ Promoting Document Freedom

Today is Document Freedom Day. It’s not the easiest subject to explain. It’s easy to explain why being free to video a police encounter in the USA is important, or why it’s wrong for your eBook to be remotely controlled by a vendor, but many people fail to understand the subtlety of why a document format is important.

Having your work in a format that will still be readable in 20 years makes sense, and being able to be sure when you share a document with others that they will be able to read it and work on it is also good. But people glaze over when you try to explain that an ISO standard is not enough. Having a document format standard that is beyond the control of any individual vendor and is fully implemented in multiple products is crucial, but seems esoteric.

So when it comes to practical actions, most people still just save their work in the format their office software chooses for them by default. They send it out to everyone without a thought for the fact they are adding their own energy to a market monopoly that restricts choice and innovation and sells our future to one of the worlds richest convicted monopolists. It’s convenient now, but who knows if the files will even be readable in the future? The largest corporations can change (Nokia started making rubber products) or even go out of business (I’ll leave you to think of an example!)

The fact it is so hard to explain to ordinary people why their choice of document format matters, why a little effort now can make all the difference in the world, is what led me to the conclusion it was worth promoting hybrid PDFs. As I wrote yesterday on ComputerWorldUK, it is possible to create a PDF that can also be fully edited.

Like ODF, PDF is a standard. Sending a PDF makes the maximum number of people able to read your work, so it’s worth the small extra effort to create it. Developing an instinct to always send PDFs ensures maximum readability, and it’s safe to assume PDFs will continue to be readable for the indefinitely long future. Using online storage instead of attaching the file can be good, but plenty of mobile and out-of-office people will be inconvenienced or excluded by that, so I’ve found people reluctant to rely on it at the moment.

Sending PDFs is the right answer. The only issue is editability. Most people just want to send one attachment, so they opt for the one from their word-processor or presentation program. By a simple software upgrade to LibreOffice, that problem is solved too. LibreOffice makes PDFs very easily, and now also comes configured to create PDFs that can be edited. I’ve created full instructions which you are welcome to pass on to others – and edit if you need to!

While I am naturally a huge supporter of Open Document Format as the best protection for our digital liberty, pragmatically I think educating and encouraging people to send PDFs instead of .DOC/.DOCX files is the best next step. When they learn the benefits of editable PDFs, they are also using ODF, of course – that’s the format that’s embedded in the PDF. But it’s a smaller, easier, less controversial step to send a PDF to all their friends and collaborators.

So celebrate Document Freedom Day with me today. Send a friend my tip about editable PDFs, or just the how-to sheet. The journey to freedom starts with the first step.

6 Responses

  1. .docx (Office Open XML) is as open as PDFs are. If it’s to abandon .docx for .odt (OpenDocument), then I think the same has to be done for PDFs and instead we should be use ePUBs. From a quick search, it appears to be far more suited for our digital age (tablets & smartphones), than PDFs with only con that are less popular than them (also I think it’s not possible -yet- to insert video -not sue).

    • That statement is arguable, since as far as I know .DOCX differs from ISO 29500. But even if you’re right, it’s missing the point I am making. .DOCX is only fully implemented in MS Office, and the partial implementations vary, so files cannot be reliably displayed by all recipients. When future releases of MS Office come out that deviate further from any ISO standard the reliability of display will be further challenged.

      By distributing a PDF, you have a file that will always be capable of being faithfully displayed. That makes it the best format to usually use for distribution and archiving. Then, when you also need the file to be temporarily editable, making it a Hybrid PDF delivers that ability as well, using another ISO standard (ODF, ISO 26300).

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  3. I knew .DOCX differed, but my point wasn’t for how (and if) open ‘Office Open XML’ files are, but why someone should prefer PDFs over ePubs, since ePubs are created from the beginning as open (and FREE) format.

    Anyway, after searching a bit more, I found, that there are some instances where PDF use (till something change) is preferred.

  4. By chance, noticed that Open Document Format (from LibreOffice/OpenOffice) like doc/docx has its own lock-in mechanism.

    Come to understand that ODF format does not allow/enable font embedding. This means that odf document generated may not be “properly” legible when accessed through another computer.

    Some scenario that this may cause problem :

    1. My kid’s homework/presentation done in Debian + LibreOffice may not look the same when opened in a classroom environment where MS is still the norm.

    2. ODF from one office (client/supplier) may not look simliar (especially symbols?) when opened at another. Definitely a show stopper for corporations where top management want to the reports to look nice 🙂

    Understand that font embedding is quite common, even many opensource application like Abiword, Gnumeric, Koffice has it.

    Any idea why the constraint?

    May not fully agreed with this link but an interesting viewpoint nevertheless (http://fuckubuntu.blogspot.com/2011/06/open-office-office-libre-font-embedding.html)

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