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July 01, 2013

The Declaration of Paper Independence

By Blaise McNamee, Web Editor

In just a few days, the citizens of the United States of America will gather to celebrate the founding of the nation. 237 years ago, the Continental Congress drafted and signed the Declaration of Independence, a document stipulating the formation of a new nation separate from the British Empire. 56 delegates signed this historic document, which was later sent to King George in an act of defiance. 

If this event was transposed a couple centuries later, however, the founding fathers may have found themselves providing their “John Hancocks” another way – with the electronic signature.

One of the obstacles facing the highly sought-after paperless office is the need for signatures for legally binding documents and contracts. A physical signature requires a physical piece of paper, obviously, and that does not bode well for those companies looking to keep their operations digital.

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Fortunately, the Electronic Signature in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN), enacted June 30, 2000, provides that a contract or signature “may not be denied legal effect, validity, or enforceability solely because an electronic signature or electronic record was used in its formation.” This means that businesses utilizing IP Fax, e-mail, and other document transmission technologies can still carryout official business transactions while staying paperless.

For purposes of enforceability, the act defines an electronic signature as “electronic sound, symbol, or process, attached to or logically associated with a contract or other record and executed or adopted by a person with the intent to sign the record.” 

As such, there are really two distinct ways to sign an electronic document. The first and most intuitive method is the electronic signature, which is simply a digitized image of a handwritten signature or something as basic as a typed name. As per the ESIGN Act, these signatures can also include sounds and symbols, so long as they identify a particular party and convey intent to sign. The second method is a digital signature, which is an algorithmically-derived, digital identification procedure that uses Public Key Infrastructure cryptography to verify authenticity. Any changes to the document or signature in transit will invalidate the digital “fingerprint.”

Clearly, the later method offers far greater levels of security and integrity, while the former can be easily subject to tampering and forgeries. State and local laws, as well as particular business requirements, will determine which method is ultimately acceptable and binding. 

Electronic and digital signatures can significantly reduce the costs associated with copying, scanning, archiving, mailing, and retrieving physical documents, while offering exceptional business process benefits. The number of signature-dependent processes can be surprisingly high, and the average employee can find themselves signing hundreds of documents a year. When used alongside unified communications technologies like IP fax, organizations can quickly automate business correspondence, increase operational efficiency, streamline document management and archiving, enhance collaboration options and help the environment, all while maintaining full regulatory compliance and legal enforceability. 

So, if the founding fathers had today’s technology, there’s a chance we’d be talking about the “Continental Video Conference” and the historic fax to King George, signed by the delegates from their homes, over morning tea. 

Edited by Jamie Epstein

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