Automatically Completing Your PDF Forms – Part I

Note: If you have Adobe Acrobat Pro, there is an alternative method that you may find easier than the method I discuss below. If you are interested, let me know by comment or by email (see email address in the footer) and I’ll add a related post directed to Acrobat Pro users.

If you are familiar with software engineering, then you may have heard of the DRY principle: Don’t Repeat Yourself.

There are some PDF forms that we use over and over. Often times, the information we enter into the forms has already been entered elsewhere. For example, consider an Application Data Sheet. It’s likely that much of the information has already been entered into your docketing system. Wouldn’t it be great if you could enter this information one time, and then re-use it every time you need it instead of typing the same information over and over?

Good news: you can. You may already be familiar with using your database to complete word processing documents using mail merge. But what about PDF forms? More good news: PDF forms can complete themselves! They can do this by importing data into the form. By the way, this process works with both Adobe Reader and Adobe Acrobat.

As a result, it’s possible to autocomplete your PDF forms using data you already have on hand, such as the data you have stored in your docketing database. The trick is to appropriately format your data so that the PDF document can import it and use it to populate the form.

Okay, here’s the caveat: Automatically populating your forms, PDF or otherwise, can save you time and help you avoid clerical errors. However, it’s important to note that there is no substitute for careful proofreading, even when using an automated system to complete your forms. I’m not going to list all of the things that can go wrong, but you can imagine that it’s possible that errors can exist in source data or errors can occur during the import process.

Okay, so with that out of the way, in this first part of this multipart entry, I will discuss how to format the data so that it can be imported into your PDF form. Then in later parts (Parts II-?) I will discuss how to create the properly formatted file from your data source so that your data can be imported into your PDF form. (I may get that all into Part II, or it may end up getting split into Parts II and III.)

Part I: Figuring out how to format the data so that it can be imported

Fortunately, it’s a relatively simple matter to determine the proper data format: just export some sample data from the form that you want to autocomplete.

For this example, I will use the declaration form for a patent application that includes an application data sheet (SB01A). This is one of the simpler forms from the USPTO, and I’m just using it for ease of explanation. The same process can be used for longer forms.

So the first step is to determine how the import data should be formatted. To do this, open a copy of the form in Adobe Reader or Acrobat, and fill in the entire form with some sample data. Preferably your sample data should actually be unique descriptions of each blank. You will see the reason for this later on. For example, instead of making up a fictional title, type something like TITLE or TITLE GOES HERE:

Once you have populated the entire form with your sample data, the next step is to export the data. In Adobe Acrobat 8 Standard, you can find this at Forms > Manage Form Data > Export Data:

If you are using Adobe Reader 9, you can find this at Document > Forms > Export Data:

If you are using a different version of Acrobat or Reader, you should still have the option to export data, but it may be located somewhere else. Try looking around in your menu items, it’s probably there somewhere. Once you click on “Export Data” a save-file dialog box will open. Make a note of where you save the file and the file name, and be sure to save the file as an XML document:

Now you can take a look at the xml file that you just saved. To do this, find the file and right-click on it to see your “Open With” options and pick one of your web browsers:

Your web browser should open the xml file and display it for you. Here is what mine looked like:

If you’re not familiar with xml, don’t panic. Keep reading, it’s not that bad. You don’t need to be an xml expert to get through this. The key thing to recognize is that the statements in the file repeat this basic pattern:

<xml opening tag>Your Data</xml closing tag>

Now you will understand why we added the descriptive text to the form before we exported the data. By looking though this xml file, you should see the text you typed into each blank. This allows you to map where your data should go without the need to try to interpret the xml tags. For example, take a look at line 3 of the xml file:

<Asamendedon xfdf:original=”As amended on”>AMENDMENT DATE</Asamendedon>

Don’t worry about the parts in the <> brackets. The only part to pay attention to is what’s between them. Looking at this, we can see that we need to replace “AMENDMENT DATE” with an actual date that we want in the form.

So, in order to import some data into this particular PDF form, we just need to create a text file exactly like the one above, but replace the “Your Data” parts with the information that we want in the form.

This may seem complicated, but luckily there’s an easy way to do this: Mail Merge!

In Part II, I describe how you can create a mail merge document from the xml file discussed above. You can then use mail merge to automatically merge your information into a new xml file, which can then be imported into the PDF. It’s a bit of work on the front end to get a mail merge document created. But, once you have your mail merge document created, it becomes a quick and easy process to autocomplete your PDF forms.

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4 Responses to Automatically Completing Your PDF Forms – Part I

  1. ST says:

    I use Adobe Acrobat Pro and I’m interested in the alternative method you mentioned.

    • PatentBytes says:

      Okay, I’ll be sure to include an explanation in a later post. For now, here’s the short version:

      • If you have Acrobat Pro, then you can make your own fillable form.
      • As you create a form in Acrobat Pro, you assign a unique name to each form field.
      • In your docketing system or other data source, each piece of data is associated with a unique field name: For example, in CTS the docket number is associated with “Case – ClientCaseNumber”
      • If you create your form in Adobe Pro so that each form field has a name that matches the respective field name of the data from your database, then you should be able to export a text file from your database/docketing system and then import it directly into your PDF form.

      I’ll write up a blog post that includes a more thorough explanation. In the meantime, if you have any questions, feel free to comment or email.

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