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What is a pdf?

Charles BrecqueCharles Brecque
Last updated on:
November 19, 2022
Published on:
April 30, 2022

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The portable document format (pdf) is a file format which was developed by Adobe in 1992 so that if can be opened by any operating system. Pdf files are one of the most commonly shared types of documents due to their interoperability but the nature of their file format means that they can be a challenge to manage. Read this article if you're curious about what a pdf file is, what the disadvantages of pdf documents are and what better alternatives exist.

What is a pdf file?

A pdf file describes a fixed-layout document which can be composed of text, vector graphics and links. Pdf files are popular because unlike other formats they do not require proprietary software to be opened and the contents can't be changed as opposed to word documents for example. Most computers have native pdf file readers, but you can also use your web browser to create pdfs from a web page or open a pdf file.

What files tend to be in a pdf format?

Pdf files are often created by pdf tools from other file formats such as Microsoft word documents, web pages or images. Even though it's possible with pdf readers to convert pdf files into editable formats, documents which mustn't be changed, such as invoices, contracts and other legal documents tend be shared as a pdf files. Scanned documents also tend to be available in a pdf format as they can't be changed or edited. A pdf file is effectively a digital version of a printed document.

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What are the disadvantages of pdf files?

One of the main disadvantages of pdfs is they make it difficult to track, manage and share the data they contain. When pdfs are created from scanned documents they are effectively unstructured images from a machine's perspective which means that it's very difficult for a computer to extract data without training a computer vision model. When pdf files are created from word documents, they can be easier to process but the data will still be in a text and unstructured format after the pdf reader has converted the pdf file to a text format. Without structure, it's difficult for a pdf reader to know what data is in a pdf file and what to do with it. Pdf conversion software tends to be specialised due to the complexity and variability of pdf files. Pdf files therefore often require humans to manually extract the data and structure it in spreadsheets or other data stores which is expensive, time consuming and error-prone. Moreover, this approach does not scale as you create more and more pdf files.

What are the alternatives to the portable document format?

Whilst the pdf format is popular, there are better alternatives for sharing the data they contain. Semantic documents are a file format which are compatible with pdf files and give structure and meaning to the data they contain. Whilst pdfs might have metadata about what they contain (e.g. the file name and pdf file description), this will have been prepared separately by the author of the pdf file. A semantic document is characterised by an ontology which is connected with the document which means that changing an element of the ontology will change the document and vis versa.

Moreover, different ontologies can connect with each other so that terms and concepts can be consistently shared between document types. For example, an employer in an employment contract and a landlord in a tenancy agreement are parties event though they appear in different types of contracts. As a result, they will share attributes of the party class whilst having their own specific ones for their specific contracts.

What are the benefits of creating semantic documents?

Creating semantic documents means that you and your digital systems can know exactly what they contain without needing to manually sift through files manually. The data they contain can be easily extracted or queried by systems which means humans are no longer required to interpret pdfs. For example, Legislate is a contract management software platform which allows businesses to create semantic contracts from simple form fields. The semantic contracts can then be filtered post-signature so that you can accurately answer questions such as how many of your employees are on a 30 day notice period. Semantic documents like Legislate's contracts are a great alternative to pdf agreements as parties can also leverage Legislate's native digital signatures to execute agreements. Moreover, Legislate contracts are also available as pdf files should you need to print or share them outside of Legislate. To create lawyer-approved contracts and keep track of the data they contain, sign up to Legislate today.

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