PDF anti-copy protection

How to protect a PDF from being copied without passwords

Adobe Acrobat protection is easily removed, data rooms don’t stop documents from being shared, and DLP solutions are useless for external sharing.  So, if all these protections don’t work, how do you stop a PDF from being copied?

At some point or another, every business has to share PDFs that contain private information.  Whether it’s board meeting minutes, customer details, or financial accounts, the last thing you want is somebody copying the document and sharing it with unauthorized parties.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what happens on a daily basis.  Ineffective protection methods lead to documents leaking to the press, competitors, or even just unauthorized parties inside the company.  To understand why this happens, you first need to recognize the various avenues users have to copy or copy from a document and why popular PDF protection solutions cannot prevent them.

  Why most PDF anti-copy protection doesn’t work

Some methods to copy a PDF are obvious: copy/pasting, duplicating the file, printing and scanning it, etc.  Others, however, are more obscure.  It’s possible, for example, to print a PDF to a file using a print driver (such as the ‘Save as PDF’ option in MS Word, or Adobe Acrobat Distiller) or screenshot and use an OCR tool to make it editable.

Techniques such as these are a lot harder to remedy.  You need a lot more control over what the user can and can’t do when interacting with their documents – more, for example, than is possible in the browser.

However, even an application that enforces PDF “no copy” features has to do it the right way – using strong technical and cryptographic foundations.  Most PDF software doesn’t – including the ever-popular Adobe Acrobat.

  Why Adobe Acrobat copy protection is useless

If you don’t dive into it too deeply, Adobe Acrobat’s “no copy” option seems pretty bulletproof.  You set a permissions password, untick the “Enable copying” option, disable printing, and you’re seemingly good to go.  Only, not really.  Adobe even warns you that these restrictions aren’t effective:

Unbelievably, Acrobat’s anti-copying protection relies almost entirely on trust.  The assumption that every application out there that can read PDFs will respect these controls and implement them in a secure way.

This is obviously never going to be the case.  There will always be those looking to circumvent the controls, whether for malicious reasons or not, or developers who just can’t or won’t follow Adobe’s restriction model.

Alternatively, you can just upload the PDF to an online password removal service and it will exploit flaws in the Adobe Security handler to remove the anti-copying and editing controls instantly.  You can then duplicate the document as many times as you like and share it with whomever you like.

  The problem with secure virtual data rooms

Virtual data rooms take a very different approach to your standard PDF protection tools.  Instead of protecting the document itself, you upload it to a hardened cloud server that is only accessible with the right username and password combination.  Users log in and access it through their web browser with a number of limitations on how they can interact with the document.  A neat idea, but does it really make a PDF not copyable?

Not really.  While data rooms can enforce some controls, they struggle with others.

  1. If you want users to be able to print documents, for example, data rooms can’t stop them from making an unprotected copy by printing to a PDF file driver instead.
  2. Screenshotting is also very hard to prevent in the browser, so users can take high-quality screenshots of each page of your document using any screen grabbing tool and make a copy of it that way.  Some screen grabber tools even use optical character recognition (OCR) to convert images into text and therefore making it possible for users to copy and paste it.
  3. Most systems don’t provide any copy protection measures for downloadable files – they are only protected if viewed in the browser.  Any watermarks that are added can also be easily removed in a PDF editor.
  4. Finally, the browser just isn’t a secure environment.  Users can manipulate document pages in their browser by injecting scripts or using a plugin to remove any editing, copy/pasting, or printing controls you implement.

  Data loss prevention systems: do they do what they claim?

Data loss prevention (DLP) systems, as the name suggests, are focused on preventing data from being extracted or “lost” rather than the copying itself.  Afterall, some copying inside an enterprise is fine, such as copying a document from one secure folder to another inside an enterprise network.

Instead, DLP systems try to identify when somebody is trying to take sensitive information off-premises and stop it from happening.  They’ll look at the content and context of PDFs and other documents and try to automatically detect when a user does something with it that breaks the “rules”.  For example, stopping you from sending a copy to somebody via an email or transferring it to a flash drive.

While it won’t catch every document or every bit of content in an email body, this generally works.  However, it’s little help if you need to share a PDF outside of your network.  Chances are, whether you’re sending a PDF to a partner or to an ebook customer, they won’t have the same DLP solution installed on their PC.  DLP systems don’t stop copying by those you trust the least – people outside of your organization.

  Does registering copyright stop your PDF from being copied?

If you’re selling PDFs, registering your copyright is always a good idea.  Though in most countries you own the copyright of a piece the second you create it, an official registration will grant you more legal options.  It provides a clear record of the owner and therefore makes it far easier to sue somebody for copyright infringement or file a DMCA takedown request.

However, it’s important to understand that your legal rights mean very little to pirates and piracy sites.  They operate anonymously and host their sites in places that don’t comply with copyright notices.  As such, registering a copyright does not provide much of a deterrent, will not stop your PDF from being copied, and in most cases won’t even result in it being taken down.

You should register it anyway.  It’s simple and having more options is never a bad thing.  While you may not be able to get it taken down from a site, you can at least use your registration certificate to stop search engines from listing that site.  Additionally, while copyright registration alone will not stop copying, combining it with a solution that allows for irremovable, identifying watermarks is very effective indeed.

  How to make a PDF not copyable

So, if the above protection doesn’t work, what does it take to make a PDF not copyable?  For most scenarios, a DRM solution like Locklizard Safeguard is the best choice.  Unlike Acrobat and secure data rooms, Safeguard focuses on enforcing document controls designed to protect against copying, sharing, piracy, and leakage.  And, contrary to DLP systems, they maintain protection even when you share the document with an external party.

Safeguard achieves this through a combination of encryption, transparent key management, DRM controls, and a secure viewer application.  Through this, it ensures that users cannot remove anti-copying controls or take screenshots. Further, if an unauthorized user does receive a copy of the file, they cannot open it unless they have a valid license.

Here’s how the system works:

  1. You encrypt a PDF on your local PC and add any DRM controls you desire.  These can include anti-screenshotting and copying techniques, printing controls, watermarks, device/location locking, and more. By default, users cannot copy text or images, edit, save or print PDF files.
  2. Safeguard saves the protected PDF to your disk as a .PDC file and creates a record of the document on the Admin System.
  3. You create a user account for each person who you want to view the document.
  4. Users receive an email with a license file and a link to download the Safeguard secure viewer.
  5. After installing the viewer, the user clicks the license file to activate it on their device.  Once activated, users cannot register the license file elsewhere (unless otherwise specified).
  6. You choose which documents users can access via the Admin System.
  7. You send the DRM-protected PDF to users just like any other file (via email, file sharing, messaging, etc.).

Essentially, it doesn’t matter where you store the document or how many times users duplicate it – if a user does not have an authorized device with a valid license file, they can’t view the document.

  How to stop the copying of a PDF with Locklizard

We’ll show you the above process step-by-step for those of you who have purchased Locklizard Safeguard already or are evaluating it using our free 15-day free trial.  As you’ll see, it only takes a minute to apply PDF copyright protection:

    1. Right-click your PDF in Windows File Explorer and select “Make Secure PDF”.

      Create a protected PDF

    2. Click on the ‘Printing and Viewing’ tab and uncheck ‘Allow printing’.  If it is already unchecked, then you don’t need to do anything – users will not be able to print your PDF files.

      Prevent printing of a PDF

    3. In the ‘Environment Controls’ tab, make sure ‘Disallow screen capture’ is selected and check ‘Add screen mask’.  The screen mask option stops users from copying text by typing it into another application on the same device while the Viewer is running.

      Stop screenshots of PDF content

    4. Apply any expiry controls in the “Expiry & Validity” tab by selecting a date or a number of days.  This will ensure your PDF is not available any longer than needed.

      Add expiry to a PDF

    5. Press the ‘Publish’ button at the bottom of the dialog.  Safeguard will create an encrypted copy protected PDF (.pdc file) that only users authorized in the Safeguard admin portal can access.

  The importance of irremovable watermarks

It’s important to note that no solution can stop somebody from taking a picture of their screen with a camera – not even Locklizard.  This is why you need to add a watermark as a deterrent on your PDFs.  Watermarks that clearly state a reader’s name and email address will ensure that they’ll only share the document if they have no fear of the legal repercussions.

There are a couple of problems with the watermarking in most PDF software, however.  Firstly, as they cannot stop editing, they can’t stop the watermark from being removed.  Secondly, even if they could prevent editing, customizing a watermark for each person you send the document to would be incredibly time-consuming – and create an awful lot of documents for you to manage and distribute.

Safeguard fixes both of those issues.  Its dynamic watermark feature can automatically apply an identifiable watermark based on the user’s details.  All you need to do is tick an option when protecting the document to apply a unique watermark for each user.

The same document displays a different watermark depending on the user viewing it.  You can even set different print and view watermarks if you wish.  Naturally, due to Safeguard’s strong anti-copy protection, these cannot be removed, either.

  The best option for PDF copyright protection

Though it can work out pricier than an application like Adobe Acrobat, PDF DRM really is your best chance to stop a PDF from being copied.  No other solution is able to apply PDF no copy controls effectively while also providing dynamic, identifying, and non-removable watermarks.

A strong PDF DRM system will not use passwords, plugins, or JavaScript, since these all provide weak protection that can be easily removed or circumvented.

Locklizard ensures your PDF files are always copy protected regardless of their location.  Users cannot share, copy and paste content, print or edit PDFs.  You can lock use to devices and locations, automatically expire and revoke access, and track use.

To make a PDF not copyable and protect your royalties or sensitive information, take a 15-day free trial of our DRM software.


How do I stop copy and paste in a PDF?

One thing’s certain – not with Adobe Acrobat protection, which can be easily removed.  Instead, you’ll want to stop copying and pasting without a password using a DRM tool like Locklizard.

How to protect a PDF from copying for free?

Protecting a PDF from copying is a difficult task that requires a lot of time and development resources to pull off.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find any free solution that can offer irremovable copy protection – they all use weak password protection which can be easily removed.

However, though Locklizard Safeguard is a paid solution, we offer a 15-day free trial that you can use for non-commercial purposes.

Does Locklizard Safeguard stop the copying of images from a PDF?

Yes.  Once you protect a document with Safeguard none of its content can be copied, including images.  This also applies if somebody tries to screenshot an image in the viewer using a screen grabbing tool.  To deter users from taking photos with a camera you should add a dynamic watermark to your PDF documents.

Does Safeguard include an option to stop the copying of text?

This is enabled by default – there is no option to select.  Safeguard’s default protection ensures users cannot copy text, copy and paste content, edit, print, or save PDF files to unprotected formats.