Can I prevent the copying of an ebook by saving it as a security-enabled PDF?

I’m writing an ebook and I want to protect the document from being copied. Can I do this by creating a security-enabled PDF?

This is a question we get periodically and the short answer is No.  At least not with the standard PDF format.

There are security features that can be enabled in a PDF document, but none of these features will prevent the file from being digitally copied. To restrict a document or ebook’s access in terms of copying, you would need a more advanced form of Digital Rights Management (DRM).

The advantage of using PDF to secure documents is that files can be opened easily with any compatible PDF viewer (like Adobe Reader), which is widely available on most computers. Advanced DRM solutions typically require another piece of hardware or software to open the file. For example, consider the Amazon Kindle ebook format (which is different than PDF). This file format utilizes DRM, but it also requires a Kindle (hardware) or Kindle Reader application (software) to open and view the file. It’s good at controlling the distribution of the file, but it’s not as universally accessible.

So, what security features can you enable in a PDF file?

First, to use any PDF security features you must first set an encryption level — how strong is the protection — when creating the PDF file. The encryption level for PDF files can be set to either 40-bit or 128-bit. The 128-bit encryption is stronger, but it requires Adobe Reader 4.x or higher to view the file. The 40-bit encryption isn’t as strong, but it can be opened with older versions of PDF viewers. If you want the greatest security, 128-bit is best choice and shouldn’t be a problem for most users.

After the encryption level has been set, you can set permissions within the PDF file. Permissions control what can be done within the file. The following options can be disabled in PDF:

  • modifying the PDF,
  • printing the PDF, or
  • copy text or images from the PDF file.

Additionally, you can set 2 levels of passwords — a required Master Password (which can be used to unlock an encrypted PDF file for editing) and an optional User Password (which is needed to open and view a PDF file).

Applying security to a PDF file is a great way to prevent sensitive information from being copied, or viewed by unauthorized users, or being printed. It will not, however, prevent someone from emailing or redistributing the PDF file.

If controlling the distribution of an ebook is most important, you may want to consider an advanced DRM solution.  Or, then again, you may not.  The music industry struggled with different DRM formatted music files only to abandom them for unencrypted MP3 files,  and now the publishing industry is testing the same waters.  But some authors are bucking the trend and releasing their books DRM-free — even popular ebooks like Harry Potter.

If it is more important to control the content of an ebook, then a secure PDF file may work best.  

Here’s a YouTube video that shows how the security features are enabled using our Win2PDF Pro product.

And, if you’re considering publishing to an established eBook format other than PDF, you might want to check out this list of eBook formats for reference.