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
If you can see it, you can copy it
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.