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.

Video tutorials and online support

A few weeks ago 60 Minutes ran a story about Khan Academy, a non-profit web site started by Sal Khan, who initially created online video lessons to help tutor his niece in math.  Before long,  others were following his video guides on YouTube and now the web site he helped start is one of the major online learning hubs on the internet.

As software developers, one of the issues we frequently encounter – especially in technical support – is how to explain things in simple terms so that even inexperienced computer users can understand our product and how to make it work.

Over the years we’ve expanded our online documentation and knowledgebase to include a lot of information on how to do different things and trouble-shoot problems, but now we are starting to add screen capture video to help explain the basic uses for Win2PDF.  Here’s an example of a basic screen capture video that we used to describe how to create a simple PDF file.

For the video tutorial creation, we’ve played around with several different software packages and we’re currently using Camtasia Studio from TechSmith.  So far it seems to work for our purposes.

The home for these new video tutorials will be our Win2PDF YouTube channel.  Add it to your favorites in YouTube, or watch this space as we continue to add more tutorials.

How to send your PDF files to a Kindle

If you’re looking for an easy way to send PDF files to a Kindle device, Amazon provides several options for transferring files.  Some of these methods require the Kindle device to be connected to a PC by a USB cable, which may not be the most convenient.

Amazon Kindle
Emailing PDF to Kindle from Win2PDF

The easiest way we’ve found — and one that can be quickly used with Win2PDF — is to send the PDF file as an email attachment directly to the Kindle device. The Amazon Kindle ebook reader supports PDF files through Amazon’s Kindle Personal Documents Service.  In order to use this service, you must first tell Amazon to accept email from your email address.  Use the following steps to enable email to your Kindle:

  1. Go to your Kindle Personal Documents Settings page.
  2. Under Approved Personal Document E-mail List, add your email address.
  3. Under Send-to-Kindle E-Mail Settings, find and record your Kindle’s email address.  This address should end in  This is the address that you will send PDF files to.

Once the Amazon Personal Document Settings have been configured, you can send PDF files directly to your Kindle by sending an email with the PDF file attached.  Win2PDF users can send the e-mail automatically when saving a PDF file (see these instructions under “How to email a PDF file after creating it?”).

Win2PDF Send PDF as Email Option

Please note that Amazon charges fees for sending files to your Kindle for some devices.

• For Kindle devices with Wi-Fi only (no 3G), there is no charge to receive PDF files.  The Kindle must be connected to a Wi-Fi network to receive PDF files.

• Kindle devices with 3G, Amazon charges a small fee to deliver the PDF files over 3G if the Kindle is not currently connected to a Wi-Fi network.  To avoid fees on 3G Kindles, you can use as the email address to prevent PDF files from being delivered over 3G.

This topic is covered in the Win2PDF How To Articles section of our online user guide.

How to automatically attach a PDF to Gmail (or any web-based email)

Here’s another question we see quite frequently.  Win2PDF has a feature to “Send file” that can be enabled on the file save window (see below).

Send PDF option in Win2PDF
Send PDF from Win2PDF file save window

When this option is checked, Win2PDF will create the PDF file and automatically attach it to a new email message using the computer’s default MAPI email client (which is typically Microsoft Outlook or Windows Live Mail).

But what do you do if you want to attach the PDF to a web-based e-mail client like Gmail or Outlook Web Access?  Since these programs don’t install as a full-fledged email client, how can you use these programs with Win2PDF?

There may be other ways to do this, but we found a software program called Affixa that has a handy way of solving this issue.  Many applications have the built-in capability to send emails, including Win2PDF, but most rely on an external email client.  Affixa  effectively resides in the background and acts as a connector to these web-based email services.  When you use the “Send file” feature in Win2PDF, for example, it will automatically create a draft web email message with the PDF attached.  Voilà!

Affixa Software

Affixa is free for personal use and only about $3 per license for business use.  And it works for any application that has a similar ‘Send to email’ capability, like Microsoft Word.  And it can be configured to work with multiple accounts (like Gmail, Outlook Web Access, Yahoo mail, etc.)

[Note:  we have no affiliation with Affixa – we just found their solution to be quite useful when used with our Win2PDF software].

For more information, please refer to this and other how to articles at our Win2PDF online user guide.

PDF/A – the PDF file for Archiving

Since we added PDF/A support in our most recent Win2PDF 7 release, we’ve had some questions about this new type of PDF file.  First, the basics.

What is PDF/A?

It’s basically a subset of the PDF file format used to archive data for long-term storage (the A stands for PDF/Archive).  It is an ISO standard (ISO 19005-1:2005) that does not need to depend on external programs or information to be displayed, all information is entirely self contained.  It does not permit the inclusion of any executable scripts, audio, video and/or encryption.  In contrast, a regular PDF file may substitute fonts (because not all fonts are saved in the original file), and may have these other types of data “linked” within the PDF file, but not “contained” within the PDF file.

For a longer description, please check out the Wikipedia entry on PDF/A.

Why is it increasingly being used in government (and courts in particular)?

  1. It’s an ISO standard file format.  Regardless of what application creates the PDF/A file, all PDF/A files will conform to the same rules.  Which is good for…
  2. Archiving.  Since these files are self contained buckets of information, the file will be able to be viewed in the future and look exactly as it did when it was created. If the PDF file linked to external information, there is no guarantee that information would be accessible in the future.
  3. It’s more secure and readily accessible.  Again, since it doesn’t allow encryption  it keeps the document accessible, and since it doesn’t allow external links to data sources, it prevents security exploits.  And finally…
  4. It’s mandated in many situations.  The Administrative Office of the US Courts identified the potential risk of not being able to reliably access archived digital files in the future in 2010.  Since then, many district Courts  now mandate the PDF/A standard for court documents.  It is also mandated by law in several European countries.

There’s other interesting information on the Legal Case for PDF/A from the PDF Association’s web site (

How do I make a PDF/A file?

With Win2PDF 7,  just select “PDF for Archiving (PDF/A)” as the Win2PDF file save type.  [Update:  Win2PDF will create a file that complies with the PDF/A-1b standard)].  It will still have a .pdf file extension, and it is just as easy to create a PDF/A file as it is to create a normal PDF file.

Win2PDF Save As PDF/A
Win2PDF file save window - Save as PDF/A

How do I know Win2PDF has created a PDF/A file?

First, make sure you have the latest version of Adobe Reader installed.  Then, open the PDF file and you’ll see a notice in Adobe Reader that states:  “The file you have opened complies with the PDF/A standard and has been opened read-only to prevent modification.”

PDF/A file in Adobe Reader
PDF/A file in Adobe Reader

Signed, Sealed, Delivered – Digital Signatures vs. Electronic Signatures

We frequently get questions about our product (Win2PDF) and its support of digital signatures.  While we have investigated adding this as a feature, there are many variations in implementation and some general misunderstandings of what “digital signatures” really are that makes it difficult to provide a universal solution to this problem.

Generally, when people speak of ‘signing a document’ they mean to apply some form of electronic signature to the PDF, and this can be done either simply (typically called an electronic signature), or in a way that is more advanced (typically called a digital signature).  A brief explanation of both:

  • An electronic signature is a general method of signing an electronic document, and it typically works by associating a marker (such as a .JPG representation of a person’s hand-written signature) to a PDF file. An electronic signature is easy to implement, but also offers fewer protections and can be easier to forge.
  • digital signature is a more sophisticated implementation of electronic signatures that associates an encrypted “fingerprint” on a PDF file. This “fingerprint” is unique to both the document and the signer and ensures the authenticity of the signer. If the PDF is changed after it is signed, it invalidates the signature.  Generally, it is a more secure method of protecting the integrity of a signed PDF file.

If you’re interested, more details can be found at this FAQ about digital signatures.

There are several different approaches to signing PDF files, and different organizations may require different levels of sophistication in their files.  A legal document sent by a lawyer, for example, may have a more stringent requirement for authentication than, say, a document that just needs an ‘sign-off’ by a manager for a particular internal process.

So, which version will you need?  That will require some more investigation on the type of solution that best fits your business needs.  One interesting recent development is that the latest version of Adobe Reader has announced some native support for “electronic signatures”.  While this isn’t an advanced digital signature solution it may suffice for many users.  And because the basic signing capability is included with Adobe Reader the implementation is easy.

Adobe acquired Echosign (a company specializing in signature technology) in July of 2011, and earlier this month they announced that the native Echosign functionality was included in the latest Adobe Reader application.  This integration will allow users to electronically sign any document in Adobe Reader (with a new “Sign” button) and then send the document out for others to sign through the Echosign web site.  Here’s a screen shot of the new Adobe Reader interface.

Adobe digital signature screen shot
Adobe Digital Signature

There are some free capabilities for a single user, but to effectively use this electronic signature capability within an organization requires a subscription to Echosign.

This is an interesting development for many users, but it still may not be the right solution for all companies.  Other companies offering digital signature solutions include IdentrustAppligent, Arx, and DocuSign.

Back to the discussion of incorporating the digital signature feature into Win2PDF?  Well, because of the variety of solutions available, and the different requirements for different organizations, we’ve found it best to provide a method to integrate with other solutions instead of trying to create a solution that will fit every user’s needs.  We do this by providing a mechanism to a launch an external application after creating the PDF file with Win2PDF.

Actually, if you are interested in this Win2PDF mechanism, send an e-mail to [email protected] and ask for more details.  We have a Win2PDF Admin Utility that can make this a little easier, but we don’t have it fully documented…  yet.

Signing off…