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Sign on the Dotted Line

Hardly a day goes by that I am not asked to sign a document and return it. Most of these documents come to me via email as attachments. In some cases it is a nice fillable PDF form, but often it is a Microsoft Word document with a series of underscores made to look like form fields to indicate where I am to place my signature and provide other information. To keep this “form” in Microsoft Word and fill it in I would spend a lot of time reformatting the document as one cannot actually fill in the fields, but rather it just pushes the underscore line out of the way. You’ve all done this and you know how frustrating this can be. You can print it out, fill it in, scan it back and email it to the requestor. However there are other ways to accomplish this task more efficiently.

Signing PDF Documents

Depending on how many form fields are on the document, one of the simplest ways to accomplish this task is to save the document to PDF and fill in the fields using Adobe Acrobat’s “Add or Edit Text Box” feature, F/K/A the Typewriter Tool. Other PDF tools like FoxIt Reader and Nuance PDF Converter provide similar functionality. However, to apply your signature as if you had signed the document with a pen, you’ll need to create a transparent signature stamp to apply to the signature field line. In this video I have step by step instructions to create an image file of your signature with transparency. Why transparency? So you don’t overwrite the line and it looks like you actually did print out the document out and sign it.

Signing MS Word Documents

So, what if you need to keep the document in an editable Microsoft Word format? Well, you can struggle with filling in the fields, but adding your signature to the

Click on image to enlarge.

Click on image to enlarge.

Word document is a breeze. Try this:

  1. Open a MS Word document that requires your signature, with or without a line.
  2. Place your cursor where you want your signature to appear.
  3. Click on the Insert tab and choose “picture”.
  4. Select the the transparent signature image file you created using the instructions in the video above.
  5. Resize the image as necessary.
  6. To get the image to overwrite a line or other text right click on the image and select “behind text“ and move the graphic as necessary.

Securing the Image of Your Signature

Anyone who has access to your signature, in print or electronically, can capture it and reuse it. In addition to copy/paste from an electronic document they can take a picture of it with their phone, forge it, clip it with a screen clipping tool, and many other ways that are easy for anyone to accomplish. We can hope that there is a second piece of identifying information required for transactions, such as a verifying email address, physical presence, picture id, password, etc. That said, many people have asked me how to secure PDFs and MS Word documents so that the signature cannot be copied. Although most any of your efforts can be thwarted there are some things you can do to indicate that you don’t want someone lifting your signature.

If you add a signature stamp in a PDF document you can apply password security to keep someone from being able to copy content from the document with Adobe Acrobat or similar software. I’ve had a number of people mention flattening files in Adobe, but while flattening will flatten form field responses, it appears to do nothing to restrict grabbing a copy of an inserted image. In MS Word I can find no way to keep someone from copying a graphic signature, even in read only mode, other than printing it out and scanning – which defeats the purpose. Please let me know by writing in the comments if you have a tested method to secure an image from copying in MS Word.

Electronic Signatures

Another option you have is to use an electronic signature workflow tool. Many let you sign as the intiator of the workflow, in addition to collecting signatures from other parties. Companies like Adobe Echosign, DocuSign and RightSignature make it easy to upload documents, mark required fields and signature blocks, send to signers and reviewers, and ultimately allowing you and clients to “sign” electronic document with a mouse or stylus similar to signing for an express package from UPS or FedEx. These companies are developing apps for tablets as well as iPhones. As with any technology used to share confidential information make sure you are comfortable with the security and privacy that the vendor has in place, and consider regulatory requirements for certain types of documents. That said, many lawyers have found ways to make these services work for them and their clients.

Conclusion

Check your applicable laws about requirements for “wet” (print) signatures, but you will find they are few and far between. Do yourself a favor, speed up your workflow and apply signatures to documents in a few easy clicks.

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Comments

  1. As Catherine notes, a digitized signature – an image of the handwritten signature – has exactly no security and thus reliability at all. It is completely useless for attribution, if attribution is contested. This is true of a faxed signature as much as a PDF or Word signature as described here.

    The only reason that the courts, notably in First Exploration v Beatty, accepted faxed signatures so readily, in my view, was that there was in that case no question of attribution. Everyone agreed that the shareholder had submitted an appropriate proxy. The only question was whether it was signed. There is an important difference between ‘is it signed?’ and ‘who signed it?’.

    There may be lots of evidence of where a document came from, besides the signature. One is usually more interested in the integrity of the document, in fact. I can imagine giving legal effect to an unsigned document, but not to a document whose origin I did not know.

    An electronic signature does not have to look like a handwritten signature. That message is the main purpose of the definition of ‘electronic signature’ in the Uniform Electronic Commerce Act and in almost all the provincial and territorial implementations of it. The definition says it is ‘information in electronic form’. This allows for all sorts of more secure signing methods than a copiable image.

    And as Catherine says, the law does not often require a signature for validity. Signatures are a matter of custom and convenience. So sometimes – maybe even often – it will be convenient to use and accept an insecure signing method. It depends on the job one wants the signature to do. The counterpart of this is that just because something is legally a valid signature does not mean it will be prudent in all circumstances to accept it. The security issue is separate from the legal issue, most of the time.

    Adobe has in more recent versions of Acrobat included a digital signature capacity, where the signature is attached to the text by a hash function, so it can’t be removed (and it’s not just a picture). The person signing may certify the signature, a process vulnerable to impersonation, but at least the link between signature and text is secure.

    The whole notion of a signature and its function needs re-examination for digital documents – and of course this re-examination has been going on for the past 20 years or so. Asking people to insert a picture of their handwritten signature in a Word or PDF document is not a step in the right direction.

    OTOH many documents do not need an especially secure signature, so those (mainly engineers, it would seem) who say that electronic transactions are not possible, or conceivable, or binding without ultra-secure signature techniques are wrong. Different risks may need different solutions. There is a lot of writing on Slaw on this, some of it by me… Sometimes one has to think outside the (signature) box.

  2. John’s comments are very useful. Simply putting graphic images of signatures in documents does not seem to be “signing”, but context is everything.

    In BC we have been using (since January 2004) digital certificates (from the BC Law Society’s Juricert service) to digitally sign Land Title documents. Juricert is what I call a “PKE” (Public Key Enough) system that has been an affordable yet technically secure solution to digital signing. To-date over 3.6 Million land transactions (transfers, mortgages, etc.) have been done in this way without, to the best of my knowledge, a single security failure. Back in 2004 we were told by the experts that without a fully featured “PKI” system there would be many problems. The dire predictions have never materialized. What did happen is the “full meal deal” PKI industry has largely been a failure.

    Ron Usher (Former CEO of Juricert)

  3. Ron, are the documents being signed party-to-party documents, or just documents being submitted to the Land Titles office? Ontario does the latter, of course, through Teranet – a PKI system where the certification authority is the relying party, essentially. It works fine, so far as I know.

    Teranet is restricted (at least mainly) to lawyers, while I see that Juricert admits notaries, land surveyors, ‘financial officers’, and an open-ended ‘authorized subscriber’ category. Can these people, i.e. those with a Juricert certificate, exchange Juricert-certified signatures among themselves? Are there other limits on the authorized use of a Juricert signature?

    That does not support a certified e-signature on an agreement of purchase and sale, however, or a mortgage as between borrower and lender.

    I think it’s clear that inserting a digitized signature (i.e. an image of handwritten signature) is ‘signing’ for the purpose of the law. What else could that image be intended for? The question is whether it’s prudent to rely on it, and that will depend on a threat-risk assessment for the particular use.

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