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How to Safely Sell PDFs Online

The PDF format is one of the best for information sharing. It maintains the layout and formatting of content while remaining universally accessible across a wide range of devices and operating systems. This makes it a favorite option when selling training content, manuals, non-fiction books, research, and more. 

However, while the format itself is ideal, the security it provides is not. Businesses that sell PDFs online will soon see their documents distributed on file-sharing sites for free, resulting in lost sales. By default, PDFs have no protection against unauthorized sharing and copying. A single purchase can go on to serve thousands of users with minimal effort on the part of the pirate.

Protecting PDFs with Adobe Acrobat

To address this, the creator of the PDF format, Adobe, offers its paid Adobe Acrobat DC software. It allows sellers to apply two passwords to their document: one to open it (open password), and one to edit it (permissions password). The theory is that by doing so they will ensure only authorized users can view, edit, and copy the document.

In practice, of course, this doesn’t quite work out. There’s nothing to stop a user from sharing their password along with the file on whatever dodgy website they’re uploading it to. Even worse, due to flaws in Adobe’s security handler, anybody with an open password can easily strip the permissions password using free, online tools. This puts you right back to the start: your customers must be able to open the document, and once opened they can strip protections and share it as many times as they like.

Of course, there are things you can do to discourage this. You could give a separate password to each user that includes an identifier, or add a watermark to each PDF with their email address on it. This may help a little on a small scale if you’re willing to enforce it, but as soon as you start to get high volumes of sales the workload becomes unsustainable.  Also, both passwords and watermarks can be easily removed so effectively that they provide no protection.

To sell PDFs online sustainably, then, you need a solution with protection that not only works but that can be automated. For this, you should look towards a fully-fledged PDF DRM.

How PDF DRM helps

Unlike Acrobat, PDF DRM is designed for one purpose: to protect documents after distribution. In particular, it focuses on doing so in a real-world environment, where a publisher needs to be able to protect hundreds or thousands of copies of the same material effectively.

As such, a good PDF DRM tool will get rid of passwords completely, instead of relying on a combination of encryption, transparent keys, and a secure viewer application. The seller encrypts their document into a proprietary format that can only be opened by the customer with the aforementioned viewer app and a valid key securely stored on their device.

As the license file that enables access can only be installed on a single PC (unless otherwise specified) and decryption keys cannot be extracted, only verified users can open the document. 

To prevent the user from making unprotected copies when they do open the document, users can also enable the following security measures:

– Disabled copy/pasting and editing

– Anti-screenshotting technology

– Printing controls, including the inability to print or print to PDF

– Restriction of opening to specific locations and devices

– Permanent and Dynamic watermarks that automatically identify the user

– Document tracking – to where and when prints and views happen

– A “self-destruct” timer based on date, number of opens, number of prints, etc.

– The ability to deny access to the document remotely at any time

– Partial and fully offline DRM enforcement

These are enforced by the secure viewer application, which does not suffer from the same flaws as Adobe’s security handler and is the only route available to open protected documents.

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Critically, PDF sellers can automate the entire protection process via API integration with the shopping carts on their website. After purchase, a customer will simply receive an email or download prompt with their license and viewer download. They will have already been added to the customer database and will be able to access their document within the limitations of the sellers’ specified controls.

By utilizing a PDF DRM solution like this, you can all but eliminate piracy. Manually re-typing the entire document is the only route left should a customer wish to share the content with others – a task that very few will be willing to take up. Sellers maintain control over their distribution, while legitimate customers can continue to access their content in a pain-free way.

Hemaja Burud
Hemaja Burud
Hello techies, My Name is Hemaja Burud. I am the tech content writer and co-founder of Technozive.com. I am currently pursuing EXTC engineering. I am very passionate about tech products and tech content.

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