Digital Rights Management: How to restrict and prevent PDF copy, print and forwarding

We use PDF files and documents for many different reasons. Sometimes, these files could be “sensitive” or “confidential” in nature. Understanding what you can do with digital rights management (DRM) is an important step to secure your important information.

Today, anyone can forward PDF files and documents with ease. Without a digital rights management system in place, it is too easy for information to be forwarded, copied, printed or downloaded.

What is Digital Rights Management? 

Digital Rights Management (DRM) refers to a set of technologies that enable the control of what the reader can do with the content. Also commonly known as “copy protection” or “copy prevention”, DRM software enables the sender to prevent the unintended spread of such information.

Typically, DRM is used to protect documents that might be sensitive or confidential. These could contain intellectual property. There have been many incidents where published works or proprietary content has been stolen, resulting in detrimental losses. Managing digital rights for your PDF documents makes it much harder and more inconvenient for people to take your information and pass it on without your knowledge.

Let’s take a closer look at Digital Rights Management and how you can restrict or prevent copying, printing and forwarding.

Who uses DRM?

Typically, DRM is implemented to control the unintended or illegal distribution of information. For instance:

  • Book publishers will need to implement DRM, so that their e-books are not illegally distributed on forums or resold. Training course providers will need to secure their training manuals, so that their intellectual property is not compromised.
  • Finance or real estate firms use data rooms for due diligence and exchange confidential information. Many data room providers also use DRM as an underlying technology to secure their documents for confidential deal transactions. This is typically licensed or purchased from DRM companies.
  • Corporations may also implement a variant of DRM, known as Information Rights Management (or IRM). This is to control access to sensitive documents that are important for the company’s operations. There may be sensitive information, which, if leaked, could be detrimental to the company’s reputation or affect their compliance with rules such as HIPAA or GDPR. Companies also usually want to revoke access to sensitive information when an employee has left the company.

Why is DRM not more widespread?

While DRM sounds great for protecting your documents, the ease of use and cost are typically two factors that hinder the adoption of the technology.

Many DRM solutions are difficult for both the sender and the recipient. The recipient will need to go through many steps to get to the document, including installing special software or validating their identity.

Secondly, if the recipient does need to install software, they need to do so on any PC or device which they’ll be viewing the document. If they’re in a corporate setting, they may find that they are restricted from installing software on company devices. Further, due to the wide range of PCs and devices, the installation may not always be successful.

Lastly, implementing DRM can take significant cost and effort, potentially making it too expensive or inaccessible to companies and professionals. Installation may require costly, specialized server software and significant IT expertise. Sometimes this is enough to deter companies from trying DRM.

Digify is designed to be simple and affordable, and you can start using the platform within minutes. It was designed to balance simplicity and security requirements. No software installation is required.

What DRM cannot do

Generally speaking, DRM cannot prevent the recording of your document by external means. Readers can always take a video recording from an external device. If they can see it, they can copy it. It is not possible for any software to block all ways and means of recordings.

This is the so-called “analogue hole”. Even Hollywood, with all of its resources, cannot avoid the possibility of someone recording a movie with a mobile phone, hence those shaky videos that appear on YouTube! However, DRM can be supplemented by watermarking, which discourages people from spreading the information.

Anyone with a mobile phone, or readily available software (which is often free), can make a screenshot with ease. If you’re sending out sensitive information via PDF, you want to ensure that no one is able to screenshot it and pass that information along to others.

DRM can still help safeguard the unintended spread of information.

Even if screen recordings or screenshots are possible, it is still challenging to capture a complete book or the full resolution of pages. Having a DRM in place is your first step to safeguard or lockdown your digital assets, so that you are in control.

How Digify can help

Digify has a screenshield feature that restricts viewing to one narrow section at a time, as well as dynamic watermarking which identifies a document with a specific recipient. Both of these measures discourage people from using another external device or screenshot tools to capture the screen.

Can I just protect my file on my own?

It is sometimes possible to copy protect a file by yourself, let’s say by setting a file to read-only with a password in Excel. However, it still does not prevent the spread of the information, as the password and the file can be sent out together. DRM takes a holistic approach to lock down the document so that it cannot spread easily, at least not without your control and knowledge.

The ability to track and revoke a file may be important as well. Once you suspect that the information has spread, the ability to know who has come into contact with a file and the ability to revoke or take back the file is very valuable.

How do PDF Digital Rights Management work?

Typically, DRM offers you the ability to restrict copy, print (and number of copies), editing and access control. Advanced DRM systems will have features such as revocation of access and document expiry. Most DRM systems do not offer detailed file tracking or watermarking, which are often included as separate tools.

Let’s look more closely at restricting or preventing copy, printing and downloading.

Prevent copying of a PDF

In some DRM systems, even with restricted editing, anyone can highlight and copy the content of your PDF. For example, they could copy any of the text then paste it into a Word document. A good PDF document security software will prevent people from being able to copy text.

How Digify can help

Digify’s PDF Digital Rights Management software helps you to restrict editing and copying of the document.

Restrict printing of a PDF

If a document can be printed, then there’s a much higher chance of it falling into the wrong hands. Hard copies get left on desks, in briefcases and in other places where unauthorized persons might get their hands on the document. However, it is still sometimes necessary in training courses or when your recipients prefer to read them on paper.

How Digify can help

You can choose to restrict printing so that getting information in hard copy form is more difficult. Digify allows you to set printer settings as you wish. This might restrict printing altogether, allow people to print freely, or restrict the number of copies that can be printed.

How to select a DRM solution

Here are a few points to look out for when you’re exploring DRM solution options:

  • Simplicity – Try to get a trial of the DRM solution. Try out both the sender and the recipient experience in different browsers or computers. Did you have to install something on your computer? Is this something that you would use? You’re looking for something that simple and usable.
  • Formats – Which formats are supported by the DRM solution? Are all the formats you need supported available? (For example; PDF, Excel, Word, Powerpoint, video, image)
  • Completeness – Does the solution provide all DRM features that you need? Do you feel safe using the solution?

Digify is here to help

Here at Digify, we’ve created a DRM solution which is feature-rich and can help with:

  • Simplicity. Digify is very simple to use. It is a zero-install solution both for the sender and the recipient. 
  • Multiple formats. Digify can handle a range of file formats beyond just PDF DRM. We can handle Word, Excel, Powerpoint, images, and video formats.
  • Beyond DRM. Digify has a full suite of encryption, access control, permissions, expiry, file tracking and watermarking features in a single, complete document security solution, so that you don’t have to get different pieces of software to work together.

Digify is probably the most affordable solution in the market today for DRM. Try it for yourself with a seven day free trial, available here.

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