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Getting Around PDF Rights Restrictions?

Cliff posted about 9 years ago | from the users-have-rights-too dept.

Software 21

RedBear asks: "It is common these days for government agencies to offer official forms online as fillable PDF forms. What is not so common is for them to offer 'rights-enabled' versions of these PDF forms that can be filled, saved locally and changed using free the Adobe Acrobat Reader PDF software. I'm sure many of you have experienced this phenomenon: You take the time to fill in a PDF form online and then discover that the only way to retain your changes is to print it. What cross-platform methods exist to allow common users to save filled PDF forms in a way that will allow easy future editing, without costing hundreds of dollars? FOSS software is of course preferable, and cross-platform between at least Mac and Windows is essential.""The main problem is this: At a small non-profit I do tech support, for it would cost hundreds of dollars to outfit just a few client computers with the full version of Adobe Acrobat, which is the only way to let their users save and update the government PDF forms they use. The official Adobe method for creating 'rights-enabled' PDF forms is currently by using Adobe LiveCycle Reader Extensions. As is typical for 'enterprise' software, you won't easily find a price for it online, only a link to contact Adobe. A line on this page that says something about it costing 'several thousands of dollars'. Talks with the document creators (state government agency) to get them to create 'rights-enabled' versions of these documents have predictably gone nowhere. I thought PDF was a relatively open format, so the question is what alternatives exist to let small agencies, or even individuals, either save the forms in a portable/re-editable manner with some inexpensive extra software or completely bypass the restrictions the same way that LiveCycle Reader Extensions does?

Adobe notes that LiveCycle Reader Extensions enables 'hidden functionality' in Adobe Acrobat Reader software. I'm assuming this doesn't mean just flipping a bit in the file, or this would already be easy to do with some third-party software. I'm also assuming that PDF password crackers have nothing to do with adding this functionality. Last but not least I'm assuming that even if a rights-enabled PDF document is obtained the additional functionality of saving and re-editing forms will only work in Adobe Acrobat Reader and not in other free PDF viewer applications like Apple's Preview.app, xpdf, Foxit PDF Reader, etc. This last isn't really a technical problem since Acrobat Reader 5.1 or later is available for Mac, Win32 and Linux. Any corrections to the above assumptions would be very welcome.

Alternatives we have found so far:

  • A website that offers inexpensive conversion of the PDF document into a rights-enabled version. Would have to be used for every form and every new version of the form that came out. Anyone used this service? Is it legit and/or legal? How are they doing the conversion? If they can do it, why can't we do it locally? What exactly is involved with creating a rights-enabled PDF anyway?
  • One cross-platform commercial software product (pdf-FormServer)that seems to offer the ability to save and re-edit PDF forms for under $45 per computer. Available for Mac OS X and Windows. A lot cheaper than Acrobat but would still need to be on every computer used by clients. Not cheap for a non-profit on a shoe-string budget. Anyone using this software care to comment? How seamless is it?
Supplemental question: Can this problem be put into the light of being an accessibility issue to help motivate these government agencies to comply with the current online accessibility laws? My hunch is no, since it's only about saving the filled form that you've already accessed, but maybe we can work in something about not being able to use the form(s) offline? (Which would be possible with a rights-enabled version of the documents and any local copy of Acrobat Reader.) The IRS website notes that every PDF form they provide after October 25, 2004 will be rights-enabled. Are they doing it solely for user convenience or are they complying with some official government policy that we can reference? Any thoughts?

Note that all links have been coralized, so remove '.nyud.net:8090' from the domain name if you really want to /. the original website.

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There are ways ... (1)

crimethinker (721591) | about 9 years ago | (#14412996)

... but if I tell you about them, the DMCA allows Adobe to have me put in jail and held for trial; Google for Dmitri Skylarov.

I believe that a quick google search will lead you to software that you need.


Re:There are ways ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#14419055)

> Google for Dmitri Skylarov.

Better yet, Google for Dmitry Sklyarov - after all, he's the one who got arrested.

Re:There are ways ... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#14419529)

query: Dmitri Skylarov
response: did you mean Dmitri Sklyarov?

Also, the choice of y or i to end his given name is arbitrary. in russia, it is probably a backards N followed by a backwards N with an accent mark (the combination of which makes a long "E" for cyrillic languages).

Short Answer - no (2, Interesting)

L. VeGas (580015) | about 9 years ago | (#14413048)

I've been elbow deep in pdf formats, Acrobat software, postscript, ghostscript, software alternatives and workarounds for years.

Adobe got in early with the format, and it became successfull because of the free reader. Far superior opportunities exist now (xml, anyone?), but, sadly, we're locked in to the ever "evolving" pdf format because of history.

I wish we could just scrap it and start over.

Hundreds of dollars is actually getting off cheap compared to the ridiculous amount of time I've spent trying to find alternatives.

PDF is good what it is intended for (1)

Noksagt (69097) | about 9 years ago | (#14413342)

It displays documents in a device independent and resolution independent form. It is also an open standard. If you need a print-ready electronic document to look the same in most places, PDF is a reasonable option.

XML alone doesn't solve this need (nor are there really compelling schemas which can replace PDF), which is one reason why there are XML->PDF tools such as FOP.

FWIW: I think Adobe does use XML for their PDF forms these days.

Re:PDF is good what it is intended for (1)

jgrahn (181062) | about 9 years ago | (#14418633)

It displays documents in a device independent and resolution independent form. It is also an open standard. If you need a print-ready electronic document to look the same in most places, PDF is a reasonable option.

And so was Postscript ...

PS vs PDF (1)

Noksagt (69097) | about 9 years ago | (#14418786)

I have no problems with PostScript (anoter open standard by Adobe), but am skeptical of the few who suggest it was so good that there was no need for PDF.

PDFs open faster with less computational resources, as they include interpreted results of PostScript. The font embedding & substitution, as well as the use of modern & efficient bitmap graphics (jpeg, jbig2, etc.) are also substantial.

Take a look at PDFTK (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#14413054)

PDF TK [accesspdf.com] written for the PDF Hacks book. It's not exactly for the common user, but it does allow you do quite a bit with PDFs that you're not supposed to be able to do.

Re:Take a look at PDFTK (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#14413390)

pdftk can't handle forms with XFA in them, or it couldn't, without first being run through the code I posted elsewhere in this discussion.

Foxit (2, Informative)

cwebb1977 (650175) | about 9 years ago | (#14413073)

Try out the Foxit PDF Reader [foxitsoftware.com] , it's free and lots faster than Adobe. And it's not from Adobe so it lets you handle pdf's the way you want it...

Sort of a 1201 issue, sort of not (4, Interesting)

cpt kangarooski (3773) | about 9 years ago | (#14413253)

For forms created by officers or employees of the United States government (that is, the federal government), in their official capacity, and to some extent contractors if they can be construed as employees for purposes of determining the author of the work, there is no copyright. This is because such works are uncopyrightable under 17 USC 105.

Additionally, forms are generally considered uncopyrightable anyway. You cannot copyright a name, or a title, or a short clause or phrase. You cannot copyright the format or typography of a work. And you cannot copyright anything you did not create yourself. If you write down that, say, 12 inches equals 1 foot, that's not your creation and is uncopyrightable. Nor can you copyright an idea, method, or system for doing things. Where there is only one, or are only a few ways of reasonably presenting an idea, no copyright is allowed, lest the copyright effectively protect the unprotectable idea. The end result is that forms aren't copyrightable. Instructions accompanying it, if creative (and probably of substantial length) could be. And maybe even diagrams. But not the basic form itself. And again, if the author is the United States, there can't be a copyright no matter how creative the work is.

This has implications for the anticircumvention provisions in the Copyright Act. 17 USC 1201 prohibits the act of circumventing an access control applied to a copyrighted work, and trafficking in devices that can circumvent access controls and copyright controls. While circumvention itself isn't really interesting here, as circumvention on one work poses no threat to other works, the trafficking provisions are.

The sort of thing the original poster seems to want to do might involve 17 USC 1201(b):

(1) No person shall manufacture, import, offer to the public, provide, or otherwise traffic in any technology, product, service, device, component, or part thereof, that--
(A) is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing protection afforded by a technological measure that effectively protects a right of a copyright owner under this title in a work or a portion thereof;
(B) has only limited commercially significant purpose or use other than to circumvent protection afforded by a technological measure that effectively protects a right of a copyright owner under this title in a work or a portion thereof; or
(C) is marketed by that person or another acting in concert with that person with that person's knowledge for use in circumventing protection afforded by a technological measure that effectively protects a right of a copyright owner under this title in a work or a portion thereof.

If the tool is primarily designed or produced for circumventing protection for public domain forms, (b)(1)(A) isn't applicable. Likewise, if the tool-maker or other distributors of the tool take care to not get involved with its use in conjunction with copyrighted works, (b)(1)(C) isn't applicable. Of course, just because someone says that this is their intent doesn't mean that a court would necessarily take their word for it.

The main sticking point is (b)(1)(B). The tool could be used for either sort of work. And there is likely little use (or worse still, commercially significant use) of it in conjunction with public domain documents. Thus, it could still be prohibited to traffic in them.

Could go either way, but remember that a similar argument (for access circumvention devices) was made for DeCSS in the Reimerdes case, and was not accepted by the court.

patched xpdf (4, Insightful)

Noksagt (69097) | about 9 years ago | (#14413286)

xpdf [foolabs.com] is a collection of some of my favorite PDF utilities & is F/OSS. There are de-drm patches in the wild & some distributions (such as gentoo) allow you to apply them fairly painlessly. For people with X, you can use a viewer. Any platform should be able to use programs which convert the PDF to PostScript (which may then be converted back to an un-DRMed PDF with other software).

I had to do exaclty this... (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#14413289)

to deal with a new version of a form that was released this year by DHS.

First you'll need this...http://www.lowagie.com/iText/ [lowagie.com]

Then you can use this code... well not this code exactly as it's rather crappy and I have a wierd setup, but you'll get the point. Also, the basis for this was found in the itext forums I believe.
package ConsoleApplication1;
import com.lowagie.text.pdf.*;
import com.lowagie.text.DocumentException;
import jp.ujihara.java.util.HashMap;
import jp.ujihara.java.util.Iterator;
import java.io.IOException;
import java.io.FileOutputStream;
public class Program
    public static void main(String[] args) throws com.lowagie.text.DocumentException
            PdfReader reader = new PdfReader("c:\\temp\\input.pdf");
            PdfDictionary acro = (PdfDictionary)PdfReader.getPdfObject(reader.getCa talog().get(PdfName.ACROFORM));
            acro.remove(new PdfName("XFA"));
            PdfStamper stp = new PdfStamper(reader, new FileOutputStream("c:\\temp\\output.pdf"));
            AcroFields af = stp.getAcroFields();
            HashMap f = af.getFields();
            for (Iterator it = f.keySet().iterator(); it.hasNext();) {
                String name = (String)it.next();
                System.out.println("Field is " + name);
            System.out.println("File closed.");
        catch (IOException e)
            System.out.print("Exception caught!");
Now you have a PDF that you can do whatever the hell you want with like fill the form with pdftk. All this code does is strip out the the XFA forms from the PDF and by extension removes the rights restrictions. It of course may not work for every PDF, but it has for the ones I've needed to use (All government released forms with the restrictions you've mentioned have been much more usable after this).

One word of warning, opening and saving the changed document in Designer 7 or 8 or whatever the latest version is will likely force you to have to remove the XFA form again.

Now I'll just sit back and wait for Slashdot to get subpoenad for my IP, then my ISP to get subpoenad for my name and address, and the DMCA related lawsuit should arrive shortly after that.

Print to PDF (4, Informative)

codehead (14804) | about 9 years ago | (#14413329)

Easy. Print to PDF. Re-edit. Rinse. Repeat.
In windows, try PrimoPDF [primopdf.com] -powered by Ghostscript- to get a new PDF with the form filled out, so yo can keep an electronic copy around. If you need to make minor modifications use a PDF editor like Foxit [foxitsoftware.com] .
In linux a straight print to file and a ps2pdf will do for the first part, and you can edit the filled-out PDF with scribus.

Re:Print to PDF (1)

ivan256 (17499) | about 9 years ago | (#14414575)

Does printing to PDF with this software maintain the text-editable form fields and embedded scripts?

Re:Print to PDF (2, Informative)

codehead (14804) | about 9 years ago | (#14414816)

Sadly no, it doesn't. But at least it lets you keep a copy of the form with the actual content that you filled in. It sure beats a hardcopy, and you can make minor changes in any part of the file.

That's not really a solution... (1)

RedBear (207369) | about 9 years ago | (#14416819)

I had suggested this idea in the past but it doesn't really solve any of their problems. What they need is to be able to keep the PDF document editable so the clients can come in and modify their information and print out a new copy (it's a standard employment form so it has to be updated when they move, get a new job, or apply to a different employer). Anyone can install CutePDF, PDFcreator or this PrimoPDF thing to print to PDF from Windows, and of course Mac OS X supports printing to PDF natively from any application. It solves nothing without buying an editor, and although Foxit PDF Editor would let them re-edit the file it still costs $99 per seat and is much more powerful/complex than they need, plus it fails the cross-platform requirement. Same thing with Scribus, it's way too much for these people who are so technophobic they don't even like the new Macs in their office. They just need to be able to edit the fields, not every word and graphic element in the document. That would really confuse them.

We ended up spending the $19 and within an hour had a fully saveable and re-editable version of the file, so long as we have a copy of Acrobat Reader 6 or later. And apparently the very latest version (7.0.5) is available for all of the important platforms, Win32, Mac, and even Linux, so this is no big deal. Looks like Linux isn't lagging behind anymore, which is nice. I can't really see this office ever using Linux until it's a lot slicker and more self-consistent, but this is another piece that helps make it a valid option for the future.

So, problem solved, for now. They will be able to use the free Acrobat Reader on every computer and even give the form to their clients and they will be able to edit it at home since it no longer requires the full version of Acrobat. Luckily, since they really only work with this one form on a regular basis it has only cost them the $19 required for the conversion from that save-pdf-forms.com place.

pdftk (0, Redundant)

Anonymous Coward | about 9 years ago | (#14414810)

"If PDF is electronic paper, then pdftk is an electronic staple-remover, hole-punch, binder, secret-decoder-ring, and X-Ray-glasses."

http://www.accesspdf.com/pdftk/ [accesspdf.com]

If this is a form distributed online.... (1)

foniksonik (573572) | about 9 years ago | (#14417234)

Keep the data online. Provide your users with a standard html form and connect it to a database... save the info in the db and have a 'Print to PDF' button, as well as a 'Print to Excel', 'Print', etc.

If it has to be formatted in the same exact way as the Government form, then you can in fact use PDF editing binaries to do this... I believe there are several PDF libraries in various languages (Perl, PHP, C, .Net) that you can use to create perfectly formatted PDFs. A good way to do it would be to open the Gov PDF in illustrator... and redefine text objects for the input fields with variable names, yes you can create illustrator files that can be dynamically changed with scripting... anyways I won't go into that part too much

The main point here is to keep the data in a db instead of some random PDF that can be deleted, lost or whatever... your users will love being able to edit their info online and know that it is being backed up frequently.


If this is a Government forms issue... (1)

TBone (5692) | about 9 years ago | (#14419114)

...then it's an accessability issue, but not the way some posters are coming at it.

These forms are, for all intents and purposes (even if not in reality) for use for everyone. They are a standard form, with a standard setup. They may be laid out in such a manner that a scanning program in the offices can parse the data. For Federal government agencies, forms have to comply with...some regulation that requires forms makers to determine how long will be required to fill out said form.

If the PDF weren't locked, then the potential exists for "rogue" versions of the form to get out to the public. The agencies have no ability to control those forms. While someone may just be pre-populating a blank form with pertinent information like names or numbers, the possibilty would exist for the layout to be compromised as well.

We're still not a digital society. The forms are online, and you can type into them, but the choice of storage for those filled-out forms is still paper. Yeah, it's a hassle, but until technology advances to the point where we can really do paperless offices (if you started holding your breath since that started being talked about, you're a pertty shade of blue by now), there really isn't an option - your PDFs can't easily (i.e., government bureaucrat level) be opened enough to let you do what you want without compromising the integrity of the document.

Not open source, but... (1)

Saxophonist (937341) | about 9 years ago | (#14420515)

A couple years ago, as a small business owner, I ordered from the IRS a free (as in beer) CD. I think it was entitled "Small Business Essentials" or something like that. The IRS provided Acrobat Approval on that CD so that it was possible to save the fill-in tax forms. It also allowed saving an incomplete form and continuing later, something not easily compatible with various "print to PDF" methods. If they still offer something similar, it can probably be ordered here [irs.gov] .

I realize that might not meet all your requirements, but it did work for me at the time, and it has worked for me every year since.

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