Helping people with computers... one answer at a time.

It's not possible to completely prevent files from being copied or printed, although you can make it more difficult. I'll look at why.

How do I protect a Word document from being copied or printed? I have Microsoft Office 2003 student package with a Windows Vista 32-bit operating system. I have tried clicking Protect Document in the Tools menu. It only protects it from not being modified, but it does not prevent it from being copied or printed. I also tried with Prepare, Mark as final, but that also does not prevent it from being copied or printed. I have tried converting my document to pdf but the receiver also can copy or print it.

The super-short answer is that you cannot.

Questions similar to this are so common that I want to review why you cannot, and even go so far as to detail why so many of the suggested approaches simply won't work.

This applies not just to Word documents, but to any digital document or file.

If you can see it, you can copy it

“Any file that can be read can be copied.”

Any file that can be read can be copied.

As far as the computer is concerned, a copy is really just one kind of read operation. The difference is that instead of displaying the file's contents on the screen, those contents are written to a new copy of the file.

So if the file can be viewed, somehow it can be read, and if it can be read, it can be copied.

Even if the file couldn't be copied for some reason, or it required a password to open so that the file couldn't be displayed on a screen, there are still plenty of workarounds.

For example, because the Word document can be read on screen, someone could take a series of screen shots, and then re-assemble them into images that reproduce the entire document. One could even then go so far as to run optical character recognition on the result to re-assemble an editable Word document.

If you can copy it, you can print it

Printing is an interesting scenario.

Some tools can be configured to disable printing of a document that they produce or manage. For example, PDF files can include an indicator that printing should not be allowed.

Of course, the problem is that as we've seen that it's quite possible to copy the document in several ways, and in doing so, change the format. Or perhaps, open the document in an otherwise compatible tool that simply doesn't respect the "do not print" flag.

And once again, if it can be seen on screen, one could take a screen shot, and then print the screen shot. Do that enough times and you can print the entire document.

It may not always be easy - meaning that "do not print" might at least make it more difficult to print - but it'll still be possible, no matter what.

What good is "Protect document"?

Various forms of "protect document" features do various things, but in general, they boil down to protecting the original document, or a copy, from being modified.

And that's it.

(I don't believe a "Mark as final"-type of feature even does that, but it simply sets an informational status of some sort.)

The file can certainly still be copied and printed. It's not that kind of protection.

Mostly because that kind of protection can't be done.

If you can see it, it can be copied, somehow.

Which, coincidentally, is also a concept that the movie and music industries are having a tough time coming to grips with.

Yes, print screen could have been disabled. Even then, it doesn't take much of a digital camera these days to "copy" the screen in a way that could be used for nearly the same purposes.

Article C4935 - September 17, 2011 « »

Share this article with your friends:

Share this article on Facebook Tweet this article Email a link to this article
Leo Leo A. Notenboom has been playing with computers since he was required to take a programming class in 1976. An 18 year career as a programmer at Microsoft soon followed. After "retiring" in 2001, Leo started Ask Leo! in 2003 as a place for answers to common computer and technical questions. More about Leo.

Not what you needed?

16 Comments
Ken B
September 19, 2011 7:57 AM

My wife used to work at the IT department of a local college. Numerous times, she ran into a similar issue. The trial version of MS Office would expire just before term papers were due, and it would lock the students out of their documents. (Well, it would let them display the documents, but not modify, print, or even select/copy the text to paste it elsewhere.)

Her solution? Get a free copy of OpenOffice.org, open both side-by-side, and re-type the document. Certainly not ideal, but it got the job done.

Mark J
September 19, 2011 2:18 PM

That Office 2010 trial is quite a trap. I'm not sure if those Word documents produced by the trial version become locked or not when the trial version expires. (I personally don't think they do). I would try to open that document directly in OppenOffice.org or LibreOffice directly It will probably open for editing.

Robert M
September 20, 2011 8:51 AM

To protect a document from being printing, save it to a CD. You can mail it to whomever you trust. Or you can save it in your CD case.

Saving it to CD doesn't prevent it from being printed.
Leo
23-Sep-2011

Al York
September 20, 2011 9:03 AM

*Chuckles*

I keep telling people who ask me the same question ... "If it's on my computer, it's mine if I want it, and there is nothing you can do to stop that."

As for the lady that has her students retyping their documents, yes, I have to agree with Mark that they probably could just open them in OpenOffice etc.

elmarsa dice
September 20, 2011 9:11 AM

One way to prevent copying is to password the file so that it cannot be opened without the password. Once it is opened I agree with Leo.

Marvin Fretwell
September 20, 2011 9:31 AM

It is not unlike the situation pre-computers. Books, letters, and manuscripts could be copied by anyone who had enough incentive. Computers have just made it easier.

The best protection is to copyright the material and go after violators.

For many things it simply isn't worth the bother, but if it really matters, then the copyright gives strong legal recourse.

Graham B
September 20, 2011 9:38 AM

One method to prevent copying is to change all the font to white so it disappears and when protected only the originater can change it back and not the viewer.

Graham B
September 20, 2011 9:45 AM

Further to my earlier comment about changing the font to white, I just discovered that if you do 'Look Up', Word will display the text. Sorry!

Mark J
September 20, 2011 10:21 AM

@Graham
Nice try. It reminds me of the secretary who saved all of her Word documents in a smaller font to save space on the disk, or the other secretary who had white out all over her monitor. LMAO!

Kevin
September 20, 2011 10:23 AM

While this is not an exact solution to the problem of "copying," one way to ensure a file is the original, authentic, and intended version of a file is to place a digital signature on the file. If one sees a digital signature in the Signatures pane on the right, one can assure that it is an unmodified, authentic file last saved by the person signing. Once again, not a solution to copying (or printing), but it ensure it is the intended version of the file.

Michael Horowitz
September 20, 2011 4:07 PM

While you can't prevent copying, you *can* prevent opening.

The file has to first be encrypted using a DRM type product and the DRM product has to be installed on any computer that wants to open the file. Then, at open time, the DRM software has to phone home and validate that the user is allowed to open the file. This doesn't allow for off-line viewing but it does allow for things like only viewing the file for x days. One such product is FileOpen (which does have an offline viewing option). I have no relationship with them but can vouch that the software works.

John Schramm
September 21, 2011 12:29 AM

It seems from all that's been said that the best (probably only) way to protect the file is to hide it using a tool like TrueCrypt. If the file can't be located or seen, it can't read, and so on.
Great article!

Mark J
September 21, 2011 7:39 AM

@John
Truecrypt certainly would prevent people printing or copying, but it would also prevent people from reading or even seeing the file, so it wouldn't help much in this case.

Eleanor
September 24, 2011 12:13 PM

How about marking it with a watermark? Would that help???

I don't see how. The watermark would simply be copied if the file were, and depending on how implemented might or might not print; but the document still would.
Leo
24-Sep-2011

Annik
February 6, 2012 6:58 AM

Hi Leo.
Could this approach be feasible? Using a screen capture program, take a "photo" of each page of the document in question & save as jpg (or any other format) then using an image editing software (Gimp or any other ones) place a clear transparent layer over it.
I would be interested in your comment. Thank you for a wonderful E-Letter.
Best regards.
A .

connie
February 6, 2012 7:47 AM

@Annik
That would sort of work. No need for the clear transparency as you've already created a graphic. No one would be able to cut and paste the text out of the graphic and steal the content. But they could just as easily steal the whole graphic.

Your biggest problem is going to be readibility. Depending on your resolution printing the graphic could also have bad results. To do a screen shot of an entire page you will have to reduce it to the size of your screen. That sure sounds like a lot of work.

Another good idea would be encryption. Leo did a whole webinar on that which you can access from this page: Encryption Webinar

Comments on this entry are closed.

If you have a question, start by using the search box up at the top of the page - there's a very good chance that your question has already been answered on Ask Leo!.

If you don't find your answer, head out to http://askleo.com/ask to ask your question.