The Pirate Bay is a great source of material for blog posting. Oddly enough this isn’t about the issue of, you know, their big court case. This is actually about their rather entertaining “Legal Threats” page. The Pirate Bay has (had?) a policy whereby if you found someone had posted a torrent with your copyrighted material on the Pirate Bay tracker / search engine you could write to the Pirate Bay and they… will promptly ignore it. Or they’ll send you a cheeky reply.
They post the letters they get on this page. Generally what they have are copies of emails which are very simply the plain text listings of the emails, generally with lots of lawyerly signatures including the words of “STRICTLY CONFIDENTIAL” etc. However, one of the documents is interesting because it’s a PDF. The Pirate Bay took this and replied back with a 1 megabyte image in .BMP format which looked a lot like this:
“I can use annoying formats too” they say. But is PDF annoying? I’m not so sure.
With my techie hat on I know that the best form to find text in is simple, human readable plain text, the sort of thing you’d get if you typed it in Notepad. It’s just the words, you can do anything with it, you can copy and paste it into any other program and every computer can interpret it in such a way as to let you see it on any computer you can find. However, with my (law) student hat on I happen to really like the not so humble Portable Document Format.
What is PDF?
It’s probably worth talking about what PDF is by comparing it to the other options for text.
1) Plain text
Examples, created by: Notepad, Text Editor
Pares everything down to the words themselves. There is no option for formatting, fonts, colours, pages, anything. All you do is type a long sheet of contigous text. The great thing is the sheer efficiency of what you produce. The document provides all the substantive content of the fancier formats but without messing with formatting issues.
- Very lightweight
- Easily transferred
- Easily modified in many different programs running on many different systems
- Easily adapted into other forms, not burdened by extra code put in for formats etc.
- No formatting, at all. Need to use things like *bold* or /italic/ to distinguish formatting
- No diagrams. It’s possible to do using letters and symbols but no chance for images in the text
- Can be hard to set out – things like footnoting and tables of contents pretty much need to be set out by hand in the vast majority of plain text editors.
- Can be very elegant, can be very crude.
2) Rich text
Examples, created by: MS Word, OpenOffice
- Most common kind of text – every web page and every Word document are rich text.
- Allows visible formatting – select text and make it bold, italic etc. Allows fonts
- Allows image imbedding, depending on the specific format this can be within the file itself (eg, Word documents) or through referencing (eg web pages)
- Can be very feature rich – templates, automated footnoting, automated table of conents etc are all possible.
- Extra features means compatibility suffers. Documents created in MS Word may have compatibility issues when opened in slightly different programs, eg. OpenOffice, Word Perfect, Abiword.
- Although you can choose various fonts for your documents these fonts will only appear on other people’s computers if they also have the same fonts installed. If they don’t they’ll see a fallback option which you may not have chosen. There are ways around this.
- Will not look the same on every computer, settings will vary and the resulting document can be affected.
Examples, created by: Paint, Photoshop
I might surprise some people by including this option here but I really do think that image formats are a real option (of sorts) for conveying text on a computer. The flexibility that allows the same picture format to contain a picture a funny cat or a world famous old master also allows it to hold the shape of words.
- Document looks exactly as it did on your computer for everyone
- Very easily shared between users – every modern computer can understand the common picture formats, so no need for specialist software to view it.
- Very, very good for diagrams. Will look exactly as intended, allows full colour and photorealistic images to included directly with the text.
- Very flexible layout – not bound by justification or layout tags, can put elements in anywhere on the document
- Very big files for email etc (the Pirate Bay image was 1 megabyte for 7 words)
- Can be hard to edit, and editing it well requires specialist software that’s hard to use
- Can be hard to add extra pages
- Not actually text – only an image so can’t be copied and manipulated like a text document
4) Device Independent formats
Examples, created by: Acrobat, Foxit, TeX
- Will look the same on every computer (is device independent). Designed to be transferred between computers
- Allows you to rely on page, line numbers because it is identical to each user
- Allows direct embedding of images, allows for diagrams to be laid in text exactly where intended by the creator
- Is still text, so can be copied and pasted as text. Possible to also have original image as well as text, for example if scanning a book, in the same document
- Can be pretty immutable, so provides quite a good historical reference. (eg, harder to edit a PDF report from Westlaw than an RTF)
- Can be “annoying” – that is if you’re browsing the internet and you come across a PDF document your browser will need to load an external reader.
- Can be expensive. PDF is officially created by Acrobat and that is not cheap. On the other hand DVI,free PDF and so on are open-source and can be produced by many different formats.
- Can be pretty immutable, it can be difficult to just change something in a PDF document.
Now, if I point you to 4ii) I think I will show you a huge reason to like PDF (and other device independent formats). The reason here is to look at the ability to rely on the page numbers – so that useful summation of a case’s ratio at the bottom of page 4 is at the bottom of page 4, on everyone’s computer.
I can’t really understand why you would email someone a PDF version of a letter instead of writing your message in the email itself. I find that strange but I don’t think that means that the format is annoying. Feel free to use these formats in your own workflow. They’re good.