Understanding PDF Standards Compliance

For a while, PDF was a proprietary format controlled by one software company until its release as an open standard in 2008 by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) under IDO 32000-1:2008. As such, documents created with pdf software require compliance with certain standards to ensure that others have the ability to open and view these files. This is especially true when PDF is used for special applications, such as professional printing or engineering documents, or even when it’s used for long-term archiving.

As subsets of the ISO standards, PDF/X, PDF/A, and PDF/E all dictate standards compliance. But what exactly does that mean? Read on and find out.

The PDF/X standard

Known as PDF for Exchange, these seven standards dictate graphics exchange to standardize the use of PDF for transferring graphic arts content files between sites, publishers, and printers.

PDF/X-1a requires that all fonts used be embedded in the document and that all images used follow CMYK or spot colors. Transparency is not allowed in this standard.

PDF/X-3 provides a bit more flexibility allowing RGB but layers and transparency are still not permitted.

The PDF/X-4 compliance standard supports CMYK, gray, RGB, or spot color and introduces the ability to include transparency and layers while X-4p helps assist in putting together a large number of files to create a document.

The next standard, PDF/X-5g, is based on its predecessors and allows document creators to store graphical elements in an external file rather than the main document itself.

The two follow-up standards, X-5pg and X-5n combine extensions in X-4p and X-5g and allows for additional color spaces such as Hexachrome.

The PDF/A standard

For most documents, PDF is usually all you need to enable everyday readability and sharing. If you need to ensure those documents are readable over the long-term, however, PDF/A should be your choice in your PDF software.

Documents created with PDF software for archiving purposes need to comply with the PDF/A standard to ensure that users can reproduce a document in the same way using PDF software in the future.

The key to being compliant with PDF/A is for documents to be 100% self-contained; the document may contain no external content, images, color information or fonts. Additionally, the document may contain no:

  • Audio or video content
  • JavaScript
  • Executable file launches
  • Encryption
  • XML Forms Architecture
  • Transparent objects of layers

The PDF/E standard

This compliance standard is designed for documents used in geospatial, construction, and manufacturing workflows to provide an easy, and consistent, exchange of engineering and technical documents. The goal of this compliance standard was to reduce the costs associated with storage and exchange of paper documentation.

Like the other standards, PDF/E specifies how authors create documents, however, this compliance standard allows for security and encryption, digital rights, digital signatures and interactive media. Documents in compliance with this standard may not include:

  • References to external content
  • JavaScript that is not associated with 3D
  • Dynamic forms

Enterprise PDF software such as PhantomPDF Business makes it easy for you to create documents that comply with these standards. With built-in features that allow for PDF/A, E and X creation, you never have to worry if the file you created in some other type of application and exported as a PDF will comply with the standards required.


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