Legal E– PUB?

I suppose it’s natural that I wonder every so often how well EPUB could be used to represent acts, regulations, case law and all the other (boring to everyone else) documents that are critical to the field. I did get my first “real” data job in legal publishing, after all.

And, yes, I realize how sad it must sound that I spend my free time thinking about translating legal documents to EPUB.

But whatever your sympathies, I spent a little time looking at the problems again by tinkering with some legislation I pulled off the web, so thought I’d recap what I was finding.


Legislation, at least in Canada, all lives on the web at this point, right, so why would anyone care for an EPUB version?

If you need to make this case, portability would be one good reason. Do you want to depend on an internet connection to get at information?

More interesting is the ability to package up sets of related acts and/or subsections of acts that are pertinent to a specific field. Who says an EPUB has to contain only a single act? All the legislation you could ever need on a little tablet. Hm…

Another notch up the coolness ladder is the ability to bookmark and add your own annotations to these portable digital versions.

Or, if you’re a publisher, what if you gave the acts away but made your business model selling professional annotations. (If it won’t fly for legislation, what about case law?)

If you’re thinking the format is only for novels, a little more imagination will open a world of opportunities.


I’m going to make this a short post, as I haven’t had a lot of time to synthesize my thoughts, or really done enough research to make more than broad-sweeping generalizations. Plus converting the document has sucked much of the life out of me.

In a nutshell, I grabbed a copy of the Income Tax Act off the government site and did a quick conversion to see what I’d unearth. Here then is a small list of things that came to light:

  • Navigation within the body is still awkward. The table of contents is useful, but the source files were using unordered lists to structure the entire document. The oddity of a piece of legislation as an unordered list aside, there is a correlation to ordered lists. At least once you reach numbered sections. The pain in translating to HTML lists has always been the decimal numbering used to inject new subsections.
  • Chunking of massive documents like the ITA is interesting. Not every section decomposes to a file size that would meet the typical 300KB EPUB size restrictions. But then none were extreme in size, either.
  • Speaking of chunking, it makes for some weird page breaking when the document is dynamically repaginated. When reading a piece of legislation, you don’t typically expect to find a half page or more of whitespace followed by the next section. A scrolled interface would work better.
  • Semantics are lacking (naturally enough, I suppose). EPUB does have parts and divisions, but no paragraphs and subparagraphs. But then one could argue that these are semantics for semantics sake.
  • One nice addition of HTML5 + EPUB 3 semantics is the ability to indicate that margin notes as outside the logical reading order. Although they typically read like headings, they’re in the margin in print for a reason. Enter: <aside epub:type="marginalia">
  • It’s also nice to be able to use a similar combination to mark revision notes as outside the reading order.
  • I spotted some basic math formulas inserted as plain text. If there were better support for MathML, as I complained in the last post, it would be nice to make real equations of these.
  • It was surprising no hyperlinking was added to the various section cross-references, but that’s an indictment of the production than of the ability to do such.
  • If HTML5’s outline algorithm were more than just a myth, the use of sections with generic headings would be a way around the collision of deep nesting of sections in legislation and there being only six headings in HTML. I didn’t see any deep nesting in this document, but it just popped to mind.

If you want to download a copy of the EPUB, give it a look and/or rifle through the source, feel free to. I only reviewed the first five chunks. After that, all you’ll find is some global cleanup.

If it’s not clear from the file, the document is unfit for any use but looking at it as an EPUB.

I’ll probably return to legislation and case law in EPUB in the future, but if anyone has been playing around with the format please feel free to share your thoughts/pain points in the comments. I’m always interested to hear.

3 Replies to “Legal E– PUB?”

  1. I was the print production person on the Goudge Inquiry report in the Fall of 2011 (an independent inquiry on behalf of the Ontario government). I convinced them that releasing the final report in EPUB would make it more accessible and easier to use. (They were determined to release it on CD-ROM.)

    It fell flat, frankly. The download stats were heavily PDF skewed.

    1. I wish I could say I was surprised, but familiarity with formats is pervasive and hard to overcome. We’re talking people who wouldn’t migrate off Folio Views without it being taken away from them. Framesets and applet-driven web sites join the inaccessible mix. I built a legislative tracking tool and the emailed reports are still in RTF because librarians want to cut and paste in Word, and partners don’t have time to read in specialized apps. Search results and legislation tables all had to have a “to PDF” button because it’s all that’s used for portability.

      The free online resources for legislation tend to be much more accessible and modern.

      That’s why I’m curious to see what can be done with EPUB. Granted, it’ll take a monumental shift to change preferences and become a viable document alternative. But even if it’s going to be a slow and painful change, you have to start somewhere, so it’s great you were even able to get an EPUB out.

  2. Another interesting post (as always), whilst ePub might well have a place in this area of publishing, I think that there is an even better approach one could use.

    I’m currently working with a company (via another company – – life is complicated!) called Egloo Technologies who have developed a device agnostic HTML5 eReader.

    tekReader sits at the end of a production workflow and takes structured content (typically XML, but it does not have to be) and transforms that content into HTML5 which can then be read/viewed in any browser on any o/s on any device.

    Some of the benefits of this include adaptive views of the same data on multiple platforms, banishment of the zooming/scrolling of PDF’s when viewing on small screens and an ability to view that content anywhere, anytime.

    I’ve worked with production solutions for Legal publishing and Technical publishing over many years and whilst paper, CDROM, PDF & ePub outputs all have their own benefits, tekReader/HTML5 outclasses them all!

    But that’s my opinion. Complex Tables, MathML, TOC, Lists of Figures, SVG support etc. It’s down to you just how much you want in your final HTML5 document.

    You can see for yourselves why I think that it is the way forward for the delivery of regulatory publications such as Legal and Technical documents as well as many other types of publications.

    Visit not only from your desktop, but also from your tablet & smartphone and you’ll get a very good idea of what tekReader is all about and what it can deliver.

    We’re also in the process of setting dates for some webinars which I’ll get out via the #eprdctn hashtag in the next week. But in the meantime have a look and please let me know what you think, I’m happy to discuss here and/or organise a one to one discussion & demo if required.

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