The Move to Standards…

♬ Oh we make the standards and we make the rules
And if you don’t abide by them you must be a fool…♬

Words and music by Paul Weller, recorded by The Jam.

One of the issues in moving to a paperless law office is the inherent difficulty of accommodating older and different proprietary file formats. Even within the same product family, for example Microsoft Word, which was first released in 1983, Wikipedia reports that there have been 5 distinct file formats. This presents huge difficulties. Imagine that you have been dutifully backing up your networked data since 1983. You now need to open a Word document that was created back then. Is there any guarantee that Word 2007 will open that document? In fact, Microsoft may have turned off the ability to open older file formats for security reasons.. I find this hard to understand, since old security vulnerabilities should have been solved a long time ago, but I digress…

Not being able to open older file formats presents difficulties for anyone trying to establish any kind of a digital data archiving system. Dutifully backing up everything on your network isn’t of much use if you can’t open up those files down the road. Twenty-six years is really a dot on the timescale in terms of data storage. Let us compare, if we will, the Dead Sea Scrolls. These writings date from 150 BC to 70 AD. This makes them, roughly, 2000 years old. According to Wikipedia:

“They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, mostly on parchment, but with some written on papyrus.”

Just imagine, if you will, if they were written in Microsoft Word, version 100 AD. Assuming that we could have inserted the USB [Uinversal Scroll Backup, of course…] flash drive from 2000 years ago into a modern computer, would we have had *any* ability to discern what was written there if we tried to open the files in Word 2007? Just *how* would we be able to find a file converter from 2000 years ago? [This of course, bypasses the fact that the Bible is considered by many to be “The Word”, version 1.0].

This is where standards come in. I hope. The ISO have certified two file formats as being International Standards. One is for Adobe’s PDF format. The other is for the Open Document file format.

One of the benefits of these formats being ISO certified is that many different applications will be able to open these documents – you are not locked into any proprietary format which is dependent on one software developer. Accordingly, there is a much greater chance that your data files will be able to be opened and read at some time in the future.

I have another hope. This hope is that once a format has been ISO certified, that future applications will carry with them the ability to open these formats, no matter how old, as they develop and grow. In other words, backward compatibility will be one of the feature sets that the ISO will look at in terms of any standard.

For any law firm looking at trying to implement a digital file storage and backup system, converting their files to either PDF or Open Document format offers a reasonable hope that these file will be able to be opened at some indefinite time in the future. After all, isn’t this one of the reasons why we implement standards in the first place and abide by them?


  1. Great points! I know when I worked for the government we had one section dealing with land claims where the files had been ongoing for 20 years, so it’s certainly likely in the future that we could need documents from old/ongoing matters and need compatibility issues not to arise!