Acrobat and PDF Clones: What you should know . . .

Chances are if you are on a legal technology listserve or read blogs, you’ll hear about alternatives to Acrobat. Apparently, you can do everything with these alternative products that you can do with Acrobat for $29!

Sadly, the legal market seems especially amenable to these messages. Cheaper is better, right?

Now, there are some clones that have even started to state that they are better legal tools than Acrobat.

I’ve updated this blog entry originally written in 2005, with more up-to-date information and some downloads.

Read on to learn more . .

Maybe not . . .

How did this happen?

You might wonder, how did Adobe get into the predicament where so many companies are competing to take away the Acrobat business?

Adobe spends millions of dollars developing and maintaining the Adobe Reader and gives it away free. Why?

(I always like to joke that Adobe makes it up in volume!)

Adobe decided at the beginning that PDF format would be a published specification. Whenever Adobe releases a new version of Acrobat, numerous documents are posted on the Adobe website documenting the structure of the PDF format. This openness is one of the reasons that the PDF is the standard it is today. Governments, in particular, want to be assured that should Adobe go out of business, they have a way to access the information they’ve published in the PDF format. This “guarantee” surely influenced many courts who have standardized on PDF today.

In January 2007, Adobe announced that the Acrobat 8 format (PDF 1.7) would be an Open Standard.

Even years prior to that announcement, many independent software vendors (ISVs) created products that create PDF or work with PDF. In fact, there are at least 1000 products that classify themselves as primarily PDF-oriented.

My opinion is that the existence of all of these alternatives is great for the PDF ecosystem. Apple has offered PDF generation built into OSX for a couple of four years. Microsoft recently announced that they were adding PDF generation to Office 12. This is equivalent to a tacit endorsement of another vendor’s format, something Microsoft hardly ever does. Until a few years ago, Microsoft didn’t even post PDFs on their website!

Despite hundreds of products that compete with Acrobat in one way or another, Acrobat revenue at Adobe is growing strongly and is an important part of the business. In just the last couple of years, I’ve seen Acrobat usage change remarkably. It used to be the case that most law firms were only interested in creating PDFs. Now, I regularly hear from firms using Acrobat for review workflows, eBriefs, interactive Deal Books, and a lot of other cool applications.

PDF Spec: All of Some of it

Why spend $299 to buy Acrobat Standard instead of a free or low-cost clone?

One significant reason– Adobe does all of the PDF standard. Clones and competitors do some of it . . . or do it wrong.

Differentiating between Acrobat and clone PDF providers isn’t easy unless you have a bit of technical bent. Much of what makes a quality PDF is under the hood.

One example is fonts, the typefaces that allow you to view the right characters on-screen in a PDF from any application. There are pages and pages about font encoding in the PDF specification. Dealing with fonts is critical and doing it correctly in all cases is technically challenging. Some developers take shortcuts. They may reason that their customer set may never use certain font encodings or need to view documents on non-English operating systems. So, many developers only do part of the font specification in the PDF language.

At LegalTech East in New York City, I talked to a patent attorney who had received some WordPerfect documents. WordPerfect has a good equation editor and the documents contained numerous math characters. He was pretty hot under the collar and was worried that he would be late producing documents! He had Adobe Acrobat and the PDFs weren’t coming out right. I asked him how he created the PDFs. As it turned out, he created PDFs by going to the File menu in WordPerfect and choosing “Publish to PDF”. That was the clue! WordPerfect includes clone PDF functionality in their word processor that he had accessed to produce the PDF. I explained the difference to him gave him directions for printing to the AdobePDF print driver. He made a special trip the next day to tell me that it worked! So, you see, even big established companies can find it challenging to do PDF well from their own products.

I recently looked at some documents posted on one clone vendor’s website and noticed that many of the characters were embedded twice!

Whenever I talk with court technologists who have implemented eFiling, they want to talk about “bad” PDFs. These are files that fail to move correctly through their systems, take too long to print or exhibit viewing errors. In some cases, the PDFs were corrupted during transfer, but upon examination it is most often a PDF created with a non-Adobe PDF clone.

Fonts are only one area of consideration. The challenge with considering clones is that they may work perfectly well for 99 out of 100 documents then fail miserably without apparent reason.

Another common claim is that clones fill in forms properly. Most clones can only fill in basic (non-XML) PDF Forms. More and more courts and regulatory agencies are using sophisticated XML-based forms, so beware.

Other Considerations

The primary value of PDF is far beyond simple PDF creation today.

PDF Clones generally do a limited set of operations. They create PDFs and in some cases may allow watermarking, stamping, and other limited operations. Acrobat, of course, does a lot more than that.

The primary value of PDF is far beyond simple PDF creation today.

If all you need is PDF creation, consider buying Adobe LiveCycle PDF Generator. Larger law firms can set this up as a web service.

I get a lot of calls from Legal IT folks who need to be able to tell their boss why they are paying over $200 a seat for Acrobat instead of cheap clone. Here’s some ammunition if you are one of those folks:

  1. Adobe offers free deployment tools such as the Acrobat Customization Wizard that allow large law firms to customize their deployment using industry-standard tools.
  2. Adobe makes the best, most compact, most accepted PDF files. Clones often don’t do everything necessary in all cases to meet court standards.
  3. Adobe PDF is structured (tagged) allowing your firm to meet government Section 508 accessibility requirements. As far as I know, the only way to get tagged PDF is using Adobe tools. Tagging is also critical for review workflows, accessibility, re-use, etc.
  4. Adobe offers OCR, creation, redaction, bates numbering, review, etc. all in one package, not spread across several packages or requiring additional products
  5. Adobe offers volume licensing for Acrobat and all of our products
  6. Adobe is the key maintainer the PDF spec . . . we are always ahead of the rest of the market
  7. Adobe offers a variety of server products that tie PDF and Acrobat to business critical workflows
  8. Adobe offers the most comprehensive security from simple usage restrictions to self-certifying documents which instantly alert you if a document has been changed
  9. Only Adobe allows you to Reader-enable a PDF so that users of the free Adobe Reader can:

An Ecosystem of Support

When you buy Adobe Acrobat, you have access to a huge ecosystem of support. For example, has tons of books and training materials on Acrobat. You won’t find any third-party books available for clone products. Adobe offers training certification programs for Acrobat, so you can find a qualified trainer to help you.

PDF Clones and Support

What is the provenance of the PDF you send?

Your clients may use the files you create in ways you may not expect. In fact, just because you can open a PDF, doesn’t mean it is correctly created.

Recently, I ran into an issue with a large enterprise customer which was receiving unusual results using Document Comparison. We discovered that a different area of the company was uing a clone PDF creator.

When I investigated the document using the Preflight tool in Acrobat, I found a large number or errors.

Unfortunately for this customer, the bad PDF caused all sorts of workflow problems. Worse, it was an issue that Adobe does not support.

Adobe’s official Support Policy for PDF Files created by non Adobe applications, it says:

If, through the course of standard troubleshooting procedures, it can be determined that an issue only occurs with PDF files created from or modified by a non Adobe (third-party) application, then you must contact the manufacturer of that application for support. Some issues that may occur are the inability to open a particular PDF file, display problems, or errors when working with the file in Adobe Acrobat.


Adobe still makes the best PDF and the best tools for working with PDF. While other tools may work for certain tasks, but make sure you thoroughly test them against Acrobat Standard or Professional. Take a test drive, compare file sizes and how the files look on-screen. Try printing the files and timing print time.

Above all, does the product meet all your needs? Does it allow you fill in and save data in a court form? Does it allow you to efficiently combine PDFs to create eBriefs or Deal Books. Does it offer the ability to use robust commenting tools? Can you redact a docement and be sure that all the data is gone?

Acrobat isn’t inexpensive, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an excellent value and the right choice for your firm.