Since I left my job at The New York Times in July, I’ve been working with a few companies in various capacities, and each of these relationships has in their own way required me to sign paperwork of some kind. Non-disclosure forms, independent contractor agreements, tax forms and the like.
The thorniest ones have been the contracts, which require not just my signature but a counter-signature too. This stuff typically comes to me via email attachments. I’ll print them out, initial each page and sign on the dotted line. Then I’ll run the whole document through my indispensable Fujitsu ScanSnap S1500M document scanner, which creates a PDF version in practically a blink of the eye, and send it back to the other party as an email attachment. If that party has scanning capabilities, then they’ll send me back a new PDF with their signature; just as often as not, they’ll have to put final copies in the mail or defer the handoff until we next meet face-to-face.
The Way They Did It in the 1900s
The whole process seems so archaic, I can hardly believe we’re still doing things this way in an age where even the I.R.S. prefers you to file your paperwork electronically. We have the means to transmit these kinds of authentications digitally and yet we seem resigned to doing things in an analog fashion.
Part of the problem may be that the most prominent of the solutions to this problem has been inelegant at best. Adobe’s Acrobat platform ostensibly allows digital signatures, but unfortunately, like many things Adobe produces, using Acrobat to sign documents is unwieldy. Except for a small number of very technically savvy folks, it’s not usually a viable option merely because not everyone has access to it. Even if they do, they rarely possess sufficient experience — or the wherewithal — to use it. I’ve owned Acrobat Pro for a decade and I don’t know how to digitally sign a document, and I can’t recall the last contract I received that was signed that way.
The New and the Unwanted
It would seem there’s a business here somewhere: imagine an independent Web site that performs a kind of escrow service for contractual agreements. The site serves as a repository for the contract documents, and allows two signing parties to verify their identities and then to assign their authorization to the contract in the form of a digital key or signature. There’s no exchange of Microsoft Word files, no scanning in of documents or sending faxes, everything’s done online.
A quick search on Google points to at least a few such services: Tractis, EchoSign and RightSignature, none of which I’d heard of before. I’m intrigued by them, but I also feel reluctant to use them with any of the parties I might sign contracts with in the near future. (If you use any of these or any other electronic signing services regularly, I’m very interested to hear about your experiences.) The process of closing a contract can be so tricky in and of itself that introducing an unfamiliar tool at just the point when both parties want to get on with the business at hand seems like a tough sell.
Like many digital innovations, this one is empirically superior to the old fashioned way yet still faces an uphill climb for adoption. If you think about it, there’s nothing inherently secure or authentic about a signed contract sent via fax, and yet we place a tremendous amount of faith in such authentications. Electronic signatures aren’t without their security issues, but it’s hard to argue that they can’t be more secure than hand-signed contracts. They’re just at a disadvantage because they’re unfamiliar.