Printers

How do I circumvent PDF editing security?

Using a little-known trick, you can take almost any secured PDF and "unlock" it for further edits and optical character recognition.

Some of us deal with a plethora of PDF documents. Perhaps we need to make various edits and comments to the documents, or maybe we need to convert the PDFs into a different format like a Word document. Unfortunately, depending on the sources from which we acquire our PDFs, some of the files may in fact be secured, meaning no edits or changes can be made to the document for content-integrity reasons.

At this point, some engineers throw their hands up in dismay, knowing that they can't directly save the document to a different format. Fortunately, the grand majority of secured PDFs I have worked with in the past, like the ones from the IEEE consortium, can be unlocked using an incredibly easy "print to file" trick.

Trick

Granted, you won't be unlocking the file itself per se, but you can generate an unlocked equivalent that can be edited and manipulated to your heart's content. First, open the document that you wish to unlock in Adobe Acrobat Reader and click File and then Print. Next, in the printers list, select "Microsoft XPS Document Writer" and then click Print.

If you try to use Adobe's PDF printer driver, it will detect that you are attempting to export a secured PDF to a fresh file and it will refuse to continue. Even third-party PDF print drivers tend to choke on such files. However, by using the XPS Document Writer, you effectively circumvent that check entirely, leaving yourself with an XPS output. Now, open the newly minted XPS file you have just created and simply repeat the printing process, only this time printing to PDF format.

CutePDF Writer

If you do not have a PDF printer to select in your list of printers, consider downloading and installing the freeware CutePDF Writer program or a program similar to it. This will allow you to set up a virtual printer that generates PDFs on the fly. It is also highly suggested that you have enough RAM installed on the PC for best results. Sometimes if these files are big enough, it can take a considerable amount of time to finalize the export and your system memory can be completely overtaken.

For example, I had to convert a 500-page secured doc to XPS and then back to PDF again. During the export process, the amount of memory consumed reached into the gigabytes, which could result in using the swap file on your hard drive, thus slowing your machine down considerably.

Disclosure

In closing, there is one important disclosure: Not every secured PDF can be printed, depending on the level of security a file contains. This hack though has worked more times than not and is a considerable time-saver in the long run. If you have any better ideas for getting around PDF encryption, let me know in the comments section below.

Also read:

About

An avid technology writer and an IT guru, Matthew is here to help bring the best in software, hardware and the web to the collective consciousness of TechRepublic's readership. In addition to writing for TechRepublic, Matthew currently works as a Cus...

61 comments
Timlaw57
Timlaw57

If you just want to unlock password protected PDF files, then you can do this with the help of this third party tool http://www.unlockpdffiles.com restriction removal tool. It creates a new PDF file without any restrictions and does not decrypt the original file or destroy its integrity.

LPaulS
LPaulS

I'll start off by confessing that I am not an IT Pro, or even an amateur for that matter. For starters, thanks for the info. This has been helpful. As far as legal concerns I would like to say that for my application anyway, this shouldn't be an issue. I recently purchased an Epson printer, and was a bit surprised to find that the manual I downloaded didn't allow for highlighting or applying sticky notes. That is just absurd! After reading your solution and other peoples comments as far as the legality of altering or circumventing security protocols, I was motivated to write this simply to show that there are in fact legitimate reasons for doing so. Additionally, I thought I would like to comment about your XPS Writer step. You are correct in saying this is a necessary step when using CutePDF Writer and another similar application, PDF reDirect. Both failed to directly print to file. After first converting to XPS, reDirect worked fine, however CutePDF only printed a partial page #276, with an error message showing on page #277, out of a 364 page manual. I have another program, doPDF v7 that worked without using the initial step of converting to an XPS document. Why this would be, I haven't a clue, but I wouldn't be expected to since, like I stated, I'm not an IT Pro. I rather humbly hope someone found this helpful. Just for kicks, I am going to ask Epson why they would block highlighting and sticky notes on the manual. Thanks again for your helpful information!

hunterj04
hunterj04

After wasting couple of hours on various programs/tools (including few programs mentioned in above article) that claims to remove security from a PDF file, this was the only thing that worked for me: http://tinyurl.com/pdf-unlocker-tool

I hope this will help others too. 

AJ_Mufasa
AJ_Mufasa

I went a completely different route. I was unable to even click the print options, however "Export" was available to me. Exporting as a Word document was forbidden, but I could export as a JPEG. Since the file was just two pages, I saved them as JPEG's to my desktop, then went and right clicked on them, saved them back to PDF's, and inserted the second PDF into the first. Renamed the document, and I was ready to go! This wouldn't be as realistic for a 50 page document.  

emrdan
emrdan

Haven't you Blocked the Print option on a PDF file? You can do this for free, with Open Office or LibreOffice using the "Export to PDF" option. You could still get a copy by taking a picture of every page of the PDF file and then joining them together; Writing it or decrypting? About giving information of how to do things. I believe it's great to share knowledge, it's not about things it's self, it's about your will, to not follow the law. Many of us, may remember how to pick a gun, and shoot if it's considered to be needed, but would you do this just to unfollow the law?

bart001fr
bart001fr

Just put the cursor into the pdf in Acrobat Reader and press control a, wait until all you see becomes blue, and then control c. Wait until the system has finished copying the file and then paste it into your favorite text processor. All the text should have been properly copied. If it says there was an error in copying or in pasting the file, you can usually disregard it, but better verify. If there are pictures or graphics, you may have to copy each individually and paste in the proper place one by one, but it works like a charm.

Pereroco
Pereroco

Great article, something truly useful when you need it. I sometimes like to listen as well as read particularly if it is along boring document. Does anyone know of a program that read pdfs aloud and maybe highlight the teaxt as it goes. Acrobat does not work for me. Thanks for any suggestions in advance Cheers

jereyes
jereyes

I use IrfanView to copy an image of each page created with print screen, then crop the image and save it as PDF, one of the many formats IrfanView saves files as.

boucaria
boucaria

Most of the support methods I use can come down to a tip written to clarify what someone has already done. So, I pay my money to get a Manual with a PDF that is secured, and the problem ( IMO) is that I can't copy and paste a small paragraph to an email that says or shows a point with great clarity. Also, I support some places where the submitters of documents, submit them as a scan in a secure form ( although no-one knows why, and the terms of contract do not ask for this), and the problem is, how does an assessor add comments to an essentially locked document. Basically , extreme examples do not show the quandry that most IT support staff are in when they get situations for support, nor does the "edit and annotate" situation, since the parsimonious way around it is to ask for a resubmission, have an unlocked document, and the submitter missess a deadline and then THEY can *possibly* sue, but not in most cases. The point I think the moderator has hit upon is that most IT staff use utilities that basically fine tune a document or program. For example, if you use Adobe Acrobat 9 Standard, there is no Redaction tool. With a 500 page document, if you print this out, then redact it manually, the fine printer on a Konica Minolta Bizhub produces an image that shows through the re-copy of the document. A waste of paper. Now, if you use Acrobat Pro 9, then use the Redaction "utility" it stops any problems when you print it out. Of course, the other way, is change the grain setting on the KM, and the Redaction works, but other parts of the document are unreadable. When you have a department that has legal issues in anything they do, either submit your document changes to general counsel, or at least hope that Fair use in Copyright is still a key part of life in the IT lane. I guess it helps me that my father was a lawyer, and I spent some time in Law school after my first degree. :-)

ouspenskif
ouspenskif

Try PDFill PDF Writer. It's free. And it has many others interesting features.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

As this is not mine... One of the documents we use has copyrighted fonts on it. We are allowed to reproduce it. We in theory we can even change the text, not using the copy righted fonts though. In order to save ourselves many potential issues we don't break the security, and ask the owner for any changes. Breaking the rules is fine, make sure you know them first though. Ignorance is no defence under the law.

barry.brown2006
barry.brown2006

There is a free program I use that removes the security simply by dropping the file onto the icon. A command window pops up and in a very short time it creates another pdf with NoPW on the end. It is called Freeware PDF Unlocker. This is a one step process and is extremely fast compared to the method above. There are times when I need to make markups or just print a portion of a page and cannot do this when there is security installed.

ReadWryt (error)
ReadWryt (error)

...only in my case I was attempting to print a manual which was saved in A4 format, but I needed to convert it to Letter so that I could provide documentation for equipment which was donated to our nonprofit. There is a trick I used which is available by utilizing a tool built into OS X. I get that there is copyright concern, and I understand that people don't want anyone posting erroneous versions of their documents, but I just needed 13 pages of the operation manual in a specific size of paper, and had to print it from a PDF off of a USB thumb drive on our Copier/Printer...or I suppose I could have hooked a computer up to it and installed the print drivers and done all that...

ps.techrep
ps.techrep

. . . open the document with LibreOffice, edit, and "save as" under a different name or folder location. If encrypted, use the key. If you don't have the key, you shouldn't have access to the doument's contents in the first place. One reason that some PDF files that appear to be textual aren't editable or searchable is that the creator saved them in with the the wrong advance Postscript options.

IsaTen
IsaTen

XPS Writer should honor PDF restrictions and it does not. Not nice for a product of a supposedly reputable company.

kctobyjoe
kctobyjoe

i did not know this trick until I just discovered it I have NO DESIRE to rip anybody's property but one file I had was of a catalog of plumbing fixtures... it would not let me print so what I did was a screen shot of every page; then open IRFANVIEW; viola! a page that would print; this solution is MUCH easier. Thanks

hthyne
hthyne

Hope it works! I will be trying out on some government forms, sometimes the length permitted is not sufficient, and sometimes I want to be able to highlight & explain in adjacent areas to ensure the examiner knows why the answer was given.

XoomXoom
XoomXoom

I'm sure there are some good uses for this, but most will not be innocent usage. I.E. the court reporter example. We've had firsthand experience in that business as well with the attempts to "rip off" the secured PDF transcripts and not pay for them. Most of us tech folk probably already knew how to do what was laid out in the article, just not sure it was a great idea to publicize it further.

WilsonT
WilsonT

I post articles for an online publication. One of their creators generates their articles in a graphics program and then converts them to PDF. The resulting PDF pages are seen as images and the Adobe Acrobat OCR reader fails to produce a text searchable file as specified for online articles. Using the technique in this blog a text searchable PDF can be created. Unfortunately the PDF file size is much larger (> 30MB vs. 2.6MB for a 52 page original) and the text quality poorer. Using the Acrobat OCR with Clearscan does get the file size back down to < 5 MB. Two versions of the document are therefore published, one for reading/printing and a second for researchers. I would be interested in hearing about alternate techniques to generate text searchable, high quality PDFs from graphicly rendered text with reasonable file sizes (< 10MB?). (Yes this is slightly off topic, but another way to use Matt's technique.)

DCR-Mo
DCR-Mo

Get screen snapshot, save it as an image file, then do OCR on the image.

techrepublic
techrepublic

I'm a court reporter. I get paid for copies of my work, so when an attorney says "I don't want a copy, but my client wants to read and sign the transcript," I'd love to send an unprintable, uncopyable PDF of the transcript; the client could read that on a computer, and he and the attorney would be otherwise unable to use it. A very little Googling showed me, however, how easy it is to print a locked PDF file, even if ALL options have been disabled and secured, including accessibility, using GPL software. So now I have to print the transcript I'm not able to sell, and the client comes to me to read and sign. -- Tim Timothy J. McGowan http://mcgowanreporting.com/

mark
mark

I quite agree with Matt, usually there is good reason why pdf docs are secured, but would add you should also be mindful of your country's copyright laws before making changes to documents that belong to others - the repercussions could be serious and costly to your business if it all goes wrong. We had a case where our data that was issued on secured pdfs but was 'changed' by a 3rd party unbeknown to us, and used on a project. Those 3rd party changes caused serious failures on the project, and not only did the 3rd party end up being sued for the failures, but were also sued for breach of copyright and fraud (they were passing-off their amendments as if they had come from us). Extreme I know, but please take a moment to think about what you are changing. Sorry for such an 'anal' comment to the thread, but I'd hate to see anyone getting caught up in 'legals'.

pmshah
pmshah

One only needs to search. Search for "A-PDF restriction remover". Costs around US$ 5/=. Upon installation it adds a couple of context menu entries for the pdf extension files. It simply removes ALL restrictions OR removes restrictions and saves as.. . your choice of name.pdf. After that you can do what you want to the file using tools of one's choice.

Spook0
Spook0

Frequently programs are set to default to a safe mode of one sort or another when it has little to do with the desired security of that particular file or its content. With little or no thought of the next user of the file or what he may need to do with the file the originator just says, "Go" and the file is launched into the world as locked.

Porterhaus
Porterhaus

I find myself a little conflicted about this article. On the one hand, I have encountered times in which I would have liked to have had the ability to modify a secured PDF document and could have used this information but on the other hand, as an IT Manager responsible for the security of thousands of desktops I find it in really bad taste for a Technical website such as Techrepublic to post information on how to circumvent the security of these documents. In most cases, there is a reason the document has been secured and the user is not permitted to make changes to the document. It is not up to the user to decide if the document should be edited or if the document should have security enabled. I am sure that this could also be used to violate the copyright status of some documents as well.

techrepublic
techrepublic

@bart001fr: PDF files can be locked to prevent copying or printing. That's why we're having this discussion about workarounds.

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

It is interesting to see another angle at this legal issue on unlocking documents and on Fair Use provisions. Thanks for your input!

bboyd
bboyd

PDF is not a Microsoft standard why fault them If Microsoft supported portable document format you would not need an acrobat reader or any of the other readers that do support it. (I prefer Foxit). Worried about copies, generate a version that is image only with watermarked generated uniquely per download. Oh wait Adobe does want their dime for that. /smirk

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

You say your solution is much easier? Seems like it's more work to me. :)

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

Stick to what has always worked best. Use hardcopies under supervision. Considering how surprisingly easy it is to go from secured to non-secured, perhaps you and other businesses going the secure PDF route will consider alternate options. If nothing else, my article helped to raise awareness of the relatively weak protections PDFs can afford document writers. In fact, come to think of it, I did everyone a service by bringing this to light. If this is such a growing and legitimate concern, then Adobe might actually care to fix their security setup so it won't be so easy to thwart. :) Good journalism pushes boundries a bit. If I were to not ever publish anything that might possibly offend (or in this case publicize a potential weakness), I wouldn't be doing my job.

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

Unfortunately, it would seem that some of the files do end up blowing up in size a bit. Basically though, what I have learned to do if such an issue occurs is to launch the rather large PDF file and save it out as an "Optimized PDF". This will allow Adobe Acrobat Reader to analyze the document once again and cut out the fat. Now on some occasions, according to various sources on the web, you can save a secured PDF out as an "Optimized PDF" and that will break the shackles of security free from the document, all the while keeping it lean. However, I have noticed that not all secured documents can be treated in this fashion, so definitely give it a try and let me know what you think. Also I noticed you had issues with the text quality. That can be easily solved simply by cranking the DPI up to the highest setting just before printing to XPS. Ultimately, there is more than one way to skin a cat, and I am open to any suggestions anyone has.

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

Thank you for chiming in. This is a very good point as well. Honestly on my end, when I worked in my IBM DOORS job, I ran my project idea by my manager to ensure I wouldn't run afoul of any copyright laws. Basically, he said since the company had an unlimited license to the docs in question, it would be fine so long as they stayed within the confines of the company intranet and servers.

Gisabun
Gisabun

It ain't free. Uses a "trial pay" which isn't free.

jonc2011
jonc2011

Makes conversion a one-step process - highly effective. Not sure why Matt doesn't trust it - I have been using it a few times per year for around 3 years - no problems. Main reason I use it is that I get some very large pdfs from time to time and seek to reduce the file size in Acrobat X. Not possible if author has restricted access. As a test I took a small 600kB file and used Matt's approach which generated a 1050kB processed pdf. In the process it lost some resolution. A-PDF RR does not cause any increase in file size or noticeable loss of resolution.

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

I don't trust programs like these. They tend to come from shady sources and you can pull off the same job... for free, like my post above suggests.

paulfx1
paulfx1

Why copyright when you can copyleft?

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

However, I am not condoning any sort of illegal activity. In fact, allow me to clarify something. The reason why these PDFs I worked with were secure in the first place was so that you could vouch for their authenticity. But, If you were circumventing the protection in order to ease importing into... say a database which could choke on encrypted content in a PDF, then that is most definitely above board. I used to work for a company that uses the IBM DOORS system for requirements management. In this scenario, I was tasked with importing PDFs from various sources (the IEEE consortium notwithstanding) and we were given the license to do whatever we needed to do with the documents, so long as they stayed internal on the company servers. This included getting around the document security if it was necessary to help facilitate in a clean database import. Keep in mind, with the PDF to XPS to PDF trick I employed, I helped to save the company money on paper that would have otherwise gone to waste printing the secured PDFs to a physical printer and scanning them back in, which is what all the engineers were doing at the time. Not to mention, the printers were few and far between and backing up the print queue because you wanted to print a nearly one thousand page document to rescan wasn't something I considered courteous to my other coworkers. In closing, just use your common sense in situations like this. I am only attempting to make life easier for engineers... not suggesting that you forge documents. Besides, if you were thinking of pulling a fast one by repackaging the document, you would still need the original root cert used to digitally sign the PDF, which you wouldn't have access to in the first place.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

The notion that a feature of a pdf file can have legal status is far fetched. Or maybe not, what with the RIDICULOUS protections to DMR afforded by certain very poorly thought out laws in recent times. But let's NOT start accepting that kind of bunk as the norm. We need to reject the legal status of programs features, not assume there to be such where there is none. In short; It cannot be copyright infringement to unlock a document. Copyright infringement has to do with what you do with the CONTENTS of the document, and is not dependent on the particular instance of the document itself being locked or not.

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

I knew there was something fishy about that A-PDF free offer. :P

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

Perhaps such a tool would be fine for personal use or whatnot. But keep in mind that some corporations have strict IT policies that do not allow for any program to be installed willy nilly. At least my idea uses stuff that should already exist on company computers by default so that you don't have to get permission to use an application from a questionable source. One thing I won't do on this blog is vouch for a program or application that could have questionable legal implications. Perhaps Adobe doesn't want someone to know that their security can be cracked, which can cause a myriad of other concerns. At least my method uses a pre-existing loophole that uses what you already have without running additional applications.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

We know which road that is. [i]" so long as they stayed internal on the company servers"[/i] a naive assumption. [i]"you would still need the original root cert used to digitally sign the PDF, which you wouldn't have access to in the first place."[/i] If people are dumb enough to be fooled by the millions of ID-theft scams, you actually believe they will be astute enough to look for the "original root cert[ificate]"? It must be you've never heard of "Snopes", whose entire purpose is to de-bunk forgeries and scams that average chumps believe. This might have been an appropriate discussion for a small, closed group, but it was not something that should be on a general public forum, no matter how lofty the intended goal.

vlad.betov
vlad.betov

I registered just to say: Kudos, sir, for reminding us what constitutes a CRI (copy-right infringement) and why it's unjust to insinuate and criminalize software that enables content to be viewed, shared and edited freely. Many thanks!

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

+1 to you good sir. This was the point I was trying to make earlier and you hit the nail right on the head with your comment.

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

I misunderstood it somehow. Well in that case... thanks kctobyjoe. :)

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

People apparently think that a secured pdf is secured to prevent its editing AT ALL. It's nothing like that. The "secured" status is equivalent to placing a lead seal on the lock of a machine - It means "This machine has been secured with this seal - If this seal is broken, the machine is not secured!" That's all. It's just a message that the doc has been verified to a specific version, and that if the "seal" is broken, all bets are off. It's just like how a windows admin can access a user account folder, but doing so leaves the user account folder permanently marked as accessed by said admin. The seal is broken. And yeah, you shouldn't go into user folders willy nilly, since it means you're making it impossible to prove that any wrongdoings originating from that account was not your doing. But it can still be necessary. You shouldn't unseal pdfs willy nilly, either. But it's not a matter of law or copyright or anything like that, if you need to get to the data, go get it.

Matt Nawrocki
Matt Nawrocki

Like anything involving company proprietary work, anything that leaks out, secured or not, could potentially be damaging and is grounds for firing. I don't see how getting around a simple secure lock on a document is drawing so much ire when some of the commenters are missing the entire point. It doesn't matter what was done here. You should be fired if you let anything get out that is considered property of the company, and that includes licensed, third-party documents. Finally, anyone in their right mind would always go to the original source website for their documents if they ever want to get the correct and verified output. Anyone who thinks they should just find some obscure torrent containing the standards documentation, just to avoid paying licensing fees, is taking a serious risk in regards to authenticity. Sound fair? Basically, I think the document scams you mention are a red herring in the eyes of businesses that adhere to protocol.

Editor's Picks