Portable Document Format (PDF)


The Portable Document Format, or PDF, is the first object presented that is not physical: it is a digital file format released for free by Adobe in 1993. While it was proprietary at the time, the fact that it did not cost money meant that it could be used ubiquitously, regardless of which systems different users had and whether those systems were compatible with each other. In 2008, Adobe released the PDF specifications as an open standard, meaning that it was no longer a proprietary file format. For the political pamphleteer, the PDF had several advantages: if the pamphlet was born digitally, it didn’t have to be printed out to be distributed, because PDFs could be read on any kind of computer. If it was made using, for example, a Xerox machine, it could be scanned in and turned into a PDF. The PDF allowed for a ubiquity of readership that had not existed previously, although the pamphleteer still had to personally select his recipients – these PDFs were not broadcast in the way later technologies enabled. There are two technical features worth noting. The first is something called the ͞tagged͟ PDF, which is an early form of markup that allowed extraction and reuse of text and images by automated programs. By creating a label system for these elements, a computer program could use those labels to recognize text and images, and process them accordingly. This was useful for things like converting a PDF to a different kind of document, or for extracting the information from a PDF to use in a different publication altogether. In addition, beginning in 2003, Adobe introduced something called ͞usage rights,͟ which allowed PDF creators to let other users interact with the PDF in more ways than simply reading. They could fill out forms, important data into forms, and because the internet was in full swing by 2003, it even allowed them to submit data. All of this was particularly useful for pamphleteers, who could now automate processes – like a subscription list, for example – at home. Many features of the PDF gave home users and individual pamphleteers access to processes that previously only existed in commercial spaces.

Taft, E., J. Pravetz, Stephen Zilles, and Larry Masinter. The application/pdf media type. No. RFC 3778. 2004.

Warnock, John. "The Camelot Project." (1991).

"ISO Standards for the PDF." International Organization for Standards. July 1, 2008. Accessed December 13, 2015.

Digital image. How to Read a PDF on Android Tablet. Accessed December 09, 2015.