We’ve talked at great length about why you should always have a contract for your various jobs and some of the terms you need to know when looking at a contract, but there remains an odd challenge when dealing with contracts, getting them signed.
The reason is that the process of signing a contract was not really designed for the digital age. Traditionally, signing a contract would involve two or more people sitting around a single sheet of paper, agreeing to the terms on it and signing their names. While that works great when the people involved are relatively close together and can get in the same room, it doesn’t work as neatly when the parties are half a world away.
However, as a freelance writer, that’s the exact situation you will often face, having to sign a contract with someone in another state or country.
Fortunately, the laws have been updated to help with this problem and new tools are coming online that make the process of signing contracts digitally much easier.
Passed in 2000, the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act (ESIGN ACT) was designed to help electronic commerce function by ensuring that signatures could not be considered invalid simply because they were electronic.
The law created a definition for an electronic signature that is the one used the most in the U.S. It reads as follows:
The term ‘electronic signature’ means an 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 you can see, the definition is extremely broad and an electronic signature could be just about anything so long as it is somewhat unique to the signer and shows an intent to sign the document.
(Note: The ESIGN Act only deals with interstate commerce. If you are dealing with someone in the same state, your local state laws apply and may be different.)
Some, for example, have taken to signing contracts or other papers with a “/s/” followed by their name. Others scan in a copy of their handwritten signature and there’s also a variety of ways to electronically sign documents and email, including via PGP.
Despite this flexibility, for contracts most still prefer to have some form of a handwritten signature, largely because it completely avoids potential issues about “is it a signature or not” under the law.
That, in turn, creates a real problem. Signing a paper usually involves having a physical page in front of you and digital contracts are, well, digital. So how does one solve this problem without killing more trees? There’s actually several solutions to the problem.
The Old Way
Prior to more recent developments, and the Internet itself, the primary way to handle contracts with two geographically disperse people was to either mail it back and forth or, more commonly, send it back and forth via fax.
However, thanks to email, fax machines are much less common than they once were and even electronic fax services such as eFax don’t fix all of the problems. You could, as an alternative, email a scanned copy of the contract back and forth, but that required printing, signing and scanning the contract in order to get all of the signatures on it.
The problem with all of these systems is that you have to have a physical contract in front of you at some point. Whether it’s a fax you send back and forth or a scanned copy you email, paper is involved and paper, in the digital age is, at best a speed bump as you wait for it to print out and, at worst, can be a major obstacle if you don’t have a printer handy.
Clearly, there’s a need for an all-digital solution and, fortunately, several companies offer just that.
A Better Answer
There are several companies that offer digital contract signing. They include the following:
- RightSignature: Offers a free trial with up to five documents, paid accounts start at $14 per month for unlimited documents and 1 template.
- FillAnyPDF: Can be used for free without an account but a free account opens up more editing options and allows storage of 5 filled forms. Paid accounts start at $19 per month and allow the storage of up to 1,000 filled forms
- DocQ: Offers a free account for up to 5 signatures per month and a paid personal account starts at $7 per month and offers 25 signatures.
Though there are differences in how the systems work, they have the same fundamental principles. One of the parties uploads the contract or document to the site, signs it using tools provided by the service, which include the ability to handwrite your signature or use different digital signature methods, and then send it to the other person or people.
The entire process, from uploading the document to the server and sending it on to the next person is paperless and some services, such as Rightsignature, even handle the process of ensuring all parties sign.
That being said, you don’t really need these services to do it. There are dozens of PDF editors available that will let you add an image to a PDF. Simply scan a copy of your signature on a white background and then use the editor to add it in the appropriate area.
You can then forward on the signed PDF to the next party, who can sign it in a similar manner.
Best of all, the only cost for this is the cost of the PDF editor and there are free online options, such as PDFescape, available.
Contracts are a necessity but they can be a bit of a pain. Trying to get a paper contract signed in the digital age is, at best, kludgy and inconvenient. Fortunately, the laws have changed to enable this kind of electronic commerce and there are tools available to make it as easy as possible.
So, next time you have to sign a contract or fill in any kind of paperwork, give going paperless a shot. You might find that it works better than the alternatives and might save a little paper too.
Best of all, getting contracts signed faster means more business and more money as you get clients signed up faster. Plus, the less time you spend with paper, the more time you spend writing, it’s a true win-win.
Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private (However, please mention that it is a suggestion for Freelance Writing Jobs). This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.
I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.
Linda Formichelli says
THANK you for this! I just signed up for DocQ and used it to digitally sign a W9 form I had been putting off doing because I would have to print, sign, and scan it.
I honestly don’t understand why GPG signatures aren’t more common in the world. From what I’ve seen (and, as a computer programmer with a small amount of cryptography experience), it seems to be one of the safest systems I’ve ever seen. Many computer security experts use GPG signatures on their emails, and it also has the advantage of making it possible to both sign and encrypt data. The receiver can even verify that the message/file not only came *from* the sender, but also that it has not been altered in any way.
With my background in computers, I don’t trust *anything* proprietary for security. Time and time again, we have seen that most proprietary systems for security / encryption have major flaws in them and can be easily cracked. GPG has been the standard in many communities for a long time, and has not yet been cracked, despite the fact that the source code and algorithm are freely available to any security expert who wants to try to break it.
Paul Davidson says
Great Article! I mostly use PDFfiller to fill, edit or create fillable PDFs. Its not the same thing, but maybe someone needs it. It also allows you to erase in a pdf, esign, efax, add logos and pics to pdfs. Its pretty easy to use and its pretty cheap. I think you can get a free week if you and a friend both register. Here is a link to the site’s functionality http://goo.gl/sywrXj.