A day to think about the PDF standard…

Excerpt: callas software’s Dietrich von Seggern describes what “owned by ISO” really means, and why that matters, in celebration of World Standards Day.

About the author: Dietrich von Seggern received his degree as a printing engineer, and in 1991 started his professional career as head of desktop prepress production in a reproduction house. He became involved in … Read more

October 12, 2021
by Dietrich von Seggern

There is no communication without standards defining the meaning of codes. In technology terms, each language is a standard protocol and each language dictionary a converter. That also applies to file formats and PDF as a portable format needs to be an open standard.

PDF is definitely one of the most used file formats these days, comparable only to HTML (actually a less closely connected set of sub formats for images, vector graphics, CSS-layouts, JavaScript, etc). Both worlds have similar standardization challenges – how to find the right balance between widely accepted, “forgiving” viewers and enforcing correct syntax.

Interestingly the two worlds are using quite different ways of standardization: The world of web technologies is defined by a decreasing number of vendors. Quite the opposite in the world of PDF – invented by just one vendor, Adobe – that is nowadays advanced via a fully democratic process where decisions are made according to international ISO rules. (To be clear: that should not say that one way is better than the other.) And not only that, for professional uses of PDF there exist dedicated sub-standards, also owned by ISO, from which PDF/A for archiving and PDF/X for prepress and print are the most important.

World Standards Day –  October 14, 2021 – with this year’s theme of a “shared vision for a better world” offers a chance to think about these things anew.

What does “owned by ISO” actually mean?

""Ideas, concepts and final texts for all these standards are developed by an international group of experts – who do this work for free. This group of international experts are representatives of vendors, solution providers, service bureaus and professional end-users for which the PDF standard is essential to their business. The best way to transform these experts into a community that can work together was to find a platform with established rules for collaboration. And that is the role of ISO as the international parent organization of all national standardization bodies.

ISO provides the rules: A standard is progressively refined in 3 to 5 stages from a new work item into an international standard, a process that usually takes several years. In order to progress from one stage to the next, there needs to be an affirmative ballot result, where each national standardization body has just one vote. In order to prepare such ballots, several discussions are taking place between the experts during which comments are discussed and resolved. Lots of work, done for free – or rather only indirectly paid via the success of the standards and its impact on the businesses of the experts.

The perfect environment to develop such a versatile standard file format that is supported by a vast number of companies worldwide. But that environment comes – literally – with a price. And that is sometimes a controversial issue: the PDF standard text is not free. Everybody who wants to access the standard text needs to purchase it directly at ISO, from a national standardization body, or from another authorized source for a price that might represent one working hour of a software developer.

Without question, it would be nice for the PDF community if the standard text would be free. However, it is important to understand that all technical work and all work that is directly associated with organizing the development of the standard is done for free by experts. The PDF community does not earn a single cent from it.

The fees for the standard text cover the cost for the central organization of standards, that is the ISO organization – in other words for making sure that the standard development follows democratic rules and is not dominated by one or more market players.

The PDF Association

4 colored blocks - red, green, blue, yellow, from The PDF Association logo.One role of the PDF Association in this process is to ease communication between ISO committees and the broader PDF community (the PDF creating and consuming worlds). It provides its members with an easy way to access all ISO working documents, sends their comments back and organizes discussion groups for interpretation and future enhancements of the PDF standards. Since recently there is even a publicly available GitHub repository where literally everybody has access to discussions and resolutions related to issues found in the standard text or can open new discussions.

Dietrich von Seggern is the PDF Association’s volunteer ISO Liaison Officer who regularly attends ISO meetings across multiple ISO Technical Committees. His emailed meeting reports are sent to all members, summarizing the progress of each PDF-related standards activity without the complex ISO terminology and jargon.