Papers, please.
August 21, 2009 8:16 AM   Subscribe

For purposes of "going paperless", when is an electronic, scanned copy of a document NOT enough? In other words, in what situations will a paper original of a document be required?

I am working with a company that is trying to "go paperless" and some people are, understandably, nervous that the scanned copies of documents won't be enough. We know about things like needing to keep the originals of documents where the document itself is the "thing" (i.e., negotiable instruments, deeds). We know about a "gotcha" in 29 CFR 1910.1020 (which requires original chest x-ray films to be preserved).

Help me anticipate the parade of horribles, Hive Mind -- tell me your experiences when the original paper document had to be / should have been presented.
posted by QuantumMeruit to Law & Government (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I have been in 1 or 2 places that tried to go this route, and we needed to rely on our attorneys for this sort of thing - beyond the stuff you've mentioned, there may also be documents that need to be preserved for contractual reasons (your customers, vendors, partners, etc). Trying to get a handle on what was must-save vs. what could go electronic was sort of painful in our case, in large part because of the company's age and the tangled web of contracts we had to deal with.

Anyway, point being: check with corporate counsel, as they'll probably know about things that might escape the radar of everyone else.
posted by jquinby at 8:21 AM on August 21, 2009

Anything with a raised seal. Birth certificates, marriage licenses, immigration stuff. Diplomas.
posted by mdonley at 8:21 AM on August 21, 2009

You are going to ask this question of a competent lawyer, right?

We seem to be having some issues in this country over original documents such as birth certificates. As you have seen, the original is not required and rarely is. However, as a matter of proof the original is better than a photocopy or scanned copy. Foreign countries though have not all gone this direction, especially in Asia. They want a certified copy of the original document for things like contracts, and in litigation you had better produce the original. Anyway, you would do well to provide your lawyer with a list of all they types of documents you want to keep strictly electronic and see what they have to say.
posted by caddis at 8:25 AM on August 21, 2009

I tell my clients that the only truly "original" document that they must have is their Will. An original will is required by my state's law; not sure about the other 49. Everything else is on file with the appropriate state/federal government agency (deed, birth certificate, mortgage, tax returns, etc...), certified copies are available, and certified copies are as good as the "original." As far as private documents such as business contracts, federal and state legislation says that a photocopy/scan is as good as the original. IANYL.
posted by webhund at 8:34 AM on August 21, 2009

This may or may not affect you, but when I worked at an ad agency, expense receipts over a certain amount required an original copy, not a scan. I don't recall off the top of my head if this was a requirement from Sarbanes/Oxley (we were public), but our auditors were pretty firm about it.
posted by mkultra at 8:35 AM on August 21, 2009

posted by Jaltcoh at 8:35 AM on August 21, 2009

Response by poster: IAAL, actually, and am offering a legal opinion to the client on many aspects of this.

I'm looking to the Hive Mind for specific instances when someone -- a customer, a regulator, etc. -- said "Wow, that's really nice that you have this perfectly legible scanned copy of your document, but what I REALLY need is the paper original." In other words, I'm trying to anticipate some of the client's potential objections.

The previous AskMe thread pointed out by Jaltcoh and sharkfu's link on "what to shred" don't really give any concrete examples beyond "If it's important, don't shred it." Fairly sound advice for individuals, but it doesn't quite provide me with what I'm looking for.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 9:16 AM on August 21, 2009

Have you read The Myth of the Paperless Office? It's not about why you shouldn't go paperless as much as it's about how replace non-essential paper documents and processes with electronic versions without bulldozing necessary paper uses. Sorry, I'm on my phone at the airport or I'd link to the book. Shouldn't be hard to find, but feel free to memail me if you'd like more info.
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:36 AM on August 21, 2009

I worry my book suggestion might not make sense without a little context--the authors profile several offices transitioning to paperless; some of the profiled offices are successful and others are not (i.e., some make good decisions in terms of what to save and what to shred--which is, I think, what you're looking for).
posted by Meg_Murry at 9:58 AM on August 21, 2009

In the jurisdiction I practice in, the rules of procedure say that in order to get a very specific kind of judgment on debt under a certain rule of procedure, you need to have an original of the instrument. You can get an equivalent judgment under another rule, but it's far, far, far more of a pain in the rear.
posted by joyceanmachine at 12:24 PM on August 21, 2009

I work in the biologics industry and scanned copies are allowed as long as the computerized system that they are being scanned into is 21 CFR part 11 compliant.
posted by kamikazegopher at 12:48 PM on August 21, 2009

I work in research. For a long time we were not able to accept consent forms if they were scanned/emailed, or faxed - they had to be paper originals. I was told by the university's institutional review board that this had something to do with a federal regulation about electronic signatures. They did say this rule had recently changed or was about to change and likely it will not be an issue anymore. But any rate, apparently in at least some circumstances, informed consent may need to be an original paper document. If the company in question is one where informed consent can be an issue. If so, I'd say check with your review board.
posted by Stacey at 2:22 PM on August 21, 2009

Many people working in commercial R&D (or academic research) may find it necessary to produce a chronological record in a court case questioning priority to an invention. Being able to produce a bound, numbered, paper lab-notebook can be extremely useful.

One solution is to make notes on the computer, then write their md5 hashes as dated entries in a paper notebook.
posted by James Scott-Brown at 3:08 PM on August 21, 2009

Certain pieces of lab data cannot be scanned or are difficult to scan due to file size, format, HIPAA, etc. How do you scan a gel that contains multiple patients' data? Depending upon the need, a separate paper trail may have to be developed for reporting/archiving and the data itself may need to be stored completely separately than the "official archive of scanned documents."
posted by beaning at 6:09 PM on August 21, 2009

Ah, on re-reading I see you are asking about documents specifically. Point still holds: lab computers may print out data in formats that cannot be readily scanned, esp for HIPAA reasons, and so alternative documentation may be needed for archiving purposes while the data needed for federal inspections is maintained separately.
posted by beaning at 6:18 PM on August 21, 2009

I have some folks who insist on having docs with real ink signatures. I have tried to convince them otherwise, but no logic seems to prevail with those folks.
posted by kch at 6:39 PM on August 21, 2009

Another thing IMO where going with paper is the best is for unstructured thinking, my unstructured thinking seems to be an order of magnitude clearer when done on paper.
posted by bigmusic at 5:07 AM on August 22, 2009

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