What if I don’t want Microsoft Word 2013 users to edit PDFs?

April 30, 2014

3 minute read

With Microsoft Office 2013, there’s a new feature called PDF Reflow that enables a Microsoft Word user to open PDF files as a Word file, make changes, and save it as either a Word document or a PDF.

This is a great feature for users who have lost their original files and need to make changes. But what if you have converted your document to PDF to specifically prevent users from editing it?

PDFs were already editable

Although Adobe’s free PDF reader doesn’t allow you to modify the content in a PDF, the full version of Adobe Acrobat has always allowed users to modify or edit PDFs. It’s more tedious than editing the original document in Microsoft Office, but you can get the job done fairly easily.

Considering this, is it still a concern that Microsoft Word 2013 users can edit PDFs?

Having PDF security can prevent users from editing your files, but not in the way you may think. PDFs have a security password which specifically prevents certain actions, such as modifying the content. Unfortunately, Microsoft chose not to respect this part of the PDF Specification. Microsoft Office allows for wholesale changing of content, even if it was specifically restricted, with an “Admin” password in the PDF.

You can still use the “Open” password to prevent unknown users from opening the PDF, and then accessing and editing the content in Microsoft Word. Users need the same open password, however, to view the PDF that they load into Microsoft Word. So this approach has limited value, and is really only applicable if you are concerned about unknown people, such as external contacts, modifying your documents.

You can use Image-Only PDF

The best solution for restricting people from editing PDFs seems to be to create image-only PDFs when it is critical that the content not be modified.

This approach flattens all of the content into an image, or picture if you will, of the original content. When Microsoft Word loads PDFs of this nature, the user will see a collection of pictures of pages, and none of the content (text or images) will be editable.

This has the negative effect of making the PDF non-searchable as well. If you further run the PDF through non-destructive Optical Character Recognition (OCR) such as the Adlib OCR engine, you can then have a text-searchable, image-based document that is not editable in Microsoft Word.

Realistically speaking, editing PDF in Word shouldn’t be a problem in most cases

When you create a PDF from any application, much of the information that is stored in that document regarding structure is lost. In addition, converting into an authoring format such as Microsoft Word is prone to introducing a multitude of formatting errors. Word will attempt to reflow the information in your PDF, which means that it will look different from the original document.

Here’s an example of a warning message that the reflow function provides when loading a PDF:

Realistically, users are not able to edit most documents and then save to PDF or even Word without significant changes to the appearance and formatting of the document. It would take a lot of effort to attempt to reformat the content to look exactly like the original.

It’s usually easier (both technically and in terms of effort) to simply re-create the document from scratch in an application such as Word, PowerPoint, Excel, or others, and then create the PDF from that format.

If you own the content, and have lost the original, you’d end up with a new original with this approach.

If you are the recipient of the content and are attempting to edit it for your own purposes, it’s probably going to be more effort than it’s worth.

Not all PDFs are equal

If you’re using desktop software to convert documents to a PDF in your organization, your PDFs may not match your source documents exactly. It may surprise you to know that not all PDFs are created equally. Take a look at the white paper to learn the differences between PDFs that have been created using basic rendering tools, versus PDFs that have been created using Advanced Rendering products.

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