Do You Sell PDFs from Your Website? Are They REALLY Secure?

Slick PDF formatting has revolutionized the online reading world. As a publisher, you can now save costs, publish faster, expand your reach worldwide, and even cut out unnecessary paper printing. What’s not to love?

However, how can you protect your PDFs from unauthorized distribution?

Even ‘traditional’ books have second hand sales and are swapped around, all meaning that the authors get paid a bit less. But, with digital publishing, it’s the whole world you have to manage. One unscrupulous reader can send your work around the world via the Internet and criminals can sell your work as their own or even hand over your trade secrets to your competitors.


Free content and exposure has a place, but 94% of online users want to be able to control their data. For authors this ‘data’ is also their livelihood. So, in a perfect world, you would be paid for your content, have full control over its distribution, and be able to revoke access to your work if needed. Digital Rights Management (DRM) control of your PDF data helps create this perfect world.


How Does DRM Protect My PDFs?

DRM uses encryption technology to protect PDFs from being copied by:

  • Preventing the Save As as well as copy [CTRL-C] and paste [CTRL-V] commands
  • Locking the PDF to registered devices only
  • Blocking bypasses, such as ‘Select All’
  • Blocking right mouse clicks to stop copy and paste
  • Preventing the Print Screen key and screen grabbing programs

Such measures cover most of your PDF security needs. You could also opt to allow limited-time access to the content. Content is typically offered ‘forever’ (really only as long as the book lasts), but DRM allows you to tweak that to suit your timeline. This suits academic books where the student could be given access for the course length, but not beyond. It is also suitable for sensitive data, trade secrets, technical training documents, and more.

How Can I Prevent Physical Reprints?

Of course, the one thing encryption does not do is stop copies being made via printing (if printing is allowed) and such printed copies can be rescanned for free online distribution. Watermarking will save you here. There is a reason why the humble watermark remains a top way to detect and prevent forgeries even today.

Possibly the best watermark is one that adds the buyers’ details to the document. That’s often enough to give them pause before unlawfully distributing your content, as they would not want their names associated with illegal activity. You should ideally embed such user details alongside your own copyright notices within the text to help you prove ownership of the work.

However, ensure the watermark is structured so it cannot be easily removed (i.e. same colour as existing text, repeated throughout the document), while it also does not obstruct the text’s readability.

How can I Avoid Frustrating My Legitimate Customers?

Of course, you would not want your DRM security to feel draconian; you still need to allow your legitimate customers some freedom. In the online publishing world that means allowing them to transfer the document between their own devices, even across operating systems. It’s a fine line to tread as your ideal is probably to get paid for most uses.

Also, remember that there is a very valid place for copying extracts (like scientific research papers) and even simply sharing knowledge (through libraries and schools). So, be willing to apply some leniency. Obscurity can, at times, be a worse hurdle for you than piracy.

Moreover, the typical Exhaustion of Rights doctrine says that once a work is sold, the purchaser can use it as he or she wishes. So, if you offer limited time access to documents, make it crystal clear. Only 16% of users actually read terms and conditions and you would not want to lose the buyers’ trust because they did not realize that access would be revoked later on.

DRM for PDFs provides some much-needed control to you, the author, by ensuring you receive the revenue for your content that is yours by right. So how do you keep your PDFs safe from unauthorized distribution and misuse?

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