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Why can't I copy/paste out of a PDF document?


I seem to be “out of step” concerning your delight in pdf documents, which I find totally user unfriendly. I do a lot of
editing, copying and pasting (for personal commitments and study purposes). I cannot do that with pdf documents and often finish up
frustrated after wasting a lot of time trying to buck the (system) document or by laboriously ‘copy typing’ a particular extract
that I need. Am I missing something here in my understanding and use of pdf documents, which would account for my inability to edit
or copy and paste extracts in the same way that I can with, say, WORD documents ?

Yes, there is something you’re missing.

But you’re very much not alone.

The missing link is simply this: what, really, is the purpose of PDF format?


PDF documents were originally intended as a digital replacement for paper, nothing more. Features like copy/paste were never intended or even initially implemented. Its primary purpose is for reading documents, and doing so in a way that the documents look the same, as much as is possible, across a wide variety of computers and devices.

“Features like copy/paste were never intended or even initially implemented.”

Think of PDF format as a photocopy of a document and you won’t be far off the mark. They look the same as the original, and they’re portable – they look the same no matter what computer you view them on.

PDF is, primarily, a portable reading and display format, it does that very, very well.

Of course like all things computer, over time features have been added. Many PDF documents, depending on how they are created, can in fact be used as the source for a copy/paste.

There are two problems:

  • the author of a PDF can elect to disable that functionality. Thus I can create a PDF in which copy is disabled. Why? Copyright and content theft protection are the normal reasons.

  • Not all PDFs contain text – some contain images. Images of pages. This would be the equivalent of taking a digital picture of a page in a book and pasting that into a word document. You would not be able to select or copy pieces of that page as text.

PDFs were also never intended to be editable, and current programs that allow you to do so are not 100% effective depending specifically on the PDF you’re trying to use it on.

PDF is a wonderful, portable reading format. But you’re correct, if you’re trying to do much more than read, it may well fall short, depending on the specifics of the documents you’re attempting to operate on.

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27 comments on “Why can't I copy/paste out of a PDF document?”

  1. It is possible to select an area within a PDF, copy it to the clipboard and paste it into a word document. To do so, place your mouse over the area you wish to select in the PDF file until you see the cross-hair pointer, click and drag the area you want to copy, then either type Ctrl C or click EDIT on the toolbar, click COPY. The image is then copied to the clipboard. Next, you must open the word document, click Ctrl V or click EDIT on toolbar, then click PASTE to insert the image into the document.

    It’s a lot of steps, but it can be done.

  2. You can’t edit, but YOU CAN COPY. With the PDF document open, click on Tools, Select zoom, and snapshot tool.
    then ‘frame’ the paragraph(s)you want to copy and paste them into your MS Word document. While it can’t be edited you have AN EXACT copy.

  3. I think that I nust be a little mad. I see problems with not being allowed to copy and paste as a challenge. Anyhow with pdf documents that wont let me copy I use Omnipage to convert the pdf to a word doc. Then there is no problem copying and pasting.

  4. You can also (if it is not disabled) SAVE AS and pick RTF or Text format. This will miles ahead of retyping.

    Not if the PDF is locked, or comprised of page images.


  5. You CAN edit pdf’s – change type, remove images and add – Adobe Illustrator. But it’s an expensive option and not a software everyone has. Works wonderfully if pdf not protected against editing (which I find is rare) and pdf is NOT a single large scanned image of type (There’s another software for that OCR recognitation program,I believe). Only problem is if you don’t have existing font, it will substitute. And I’m able to copy & paste between Illustrator, Photoshop & InDesign.

  6. If I could offer a direction…

    Look into a feature called OCR (Optical Character Recognition). It simply scans these PDF’s and interprets the images and creates the text itself. They are not perfect, but can be quite effective in at least getting a lot of text into a “copy-pastable” (is that an official word yet?) format. It’s necessary to proof what has been copied, but if you have to re-type it anyway…

    I don’t know anything about the free versions (I personally use Adobe Acrobat which costs money) but I’d guess that at least one is out there that offers OCR capability.

  7. Foxit can help in copy and past functions assuming it is not an image file and Foxit PDF Editor is very effective at editing PDF files.

  8. Jeez I just don’t understand why everything has been made so difficult,B4 PDF I always took a “screenshot” of anything I wanted.Of course ya sure cant edit the text without speding a lot of time, but you have an exact copy.Someone mentioned OCR which is the best bet to be able to do much of anything with a lot of PDF files.Something I have done since I started using computers is to save something using any available format txt,rtf.doc,html,etc. and just play with it to see what I can do with the file.I don’t really see why everyone thinks PDF is so cool,2me its just another app that I don’t really need that much, Its just the flavor of the week app that ppl must have for some unknown reason, ppl send stuff in that format and I’m forced to deal with it.IMHO this doesn’t make the file anymore secure than any other format.If I really want to take the time its possible to take a screenshot (many free software versions to choose from)and edit from there.In fact its a bunch of work with no payoff,but that’s how I learned about computers and what makes em tick.
    I was told a long time ago to save a file I wanna play with and use the copy to experiment so when I mess up the file I still got the original to rely on.Jeez I love this stuff….LOL.


  9. Miklo (previous post) has an option (screen print) that I frequently use, however there is a new app. out there, PDFTOWORD.COM, that sounds like it might also do the trick when you need to do changes.

  10. For students who want to copy passages from PDF files, Foxit software works fine. There is an icon you can use to Select the passage, after which a ^C (control C) will copy it to the clip board – or better still, use a program like Clipmate. BTW, I learned a few things from these comments – keep ’em coming.

  11. Why not convert it to a word doc, then edit it. Then convert it back to a PDF. All you would need is word and adobe acrobat.

  12. If you are using Office 2003 (or later), you must have ‘Microsoft Office Document Image Writer’ on your Control Panel’s Printers and Faxes.
    Then to convert your PDF to DOC, do these:
    1.Open your PDF file.
    2.Print it by using ‘Microsoft Office Document Image Writer’.
    3.Save the image as MDI.
    4.Open the MDI file using ‘Microsoft Office Document Imaging’
    5.Click Tools > ‘Send Text to Word’
    6.Last, follow the instructions. ^^ and.. it’s done.

  13. You can’t copy/paste because of the restriction set by the creator. That’s the so called PDF Owner Password.
    In fact, you can just convert the PDF to Word then you can copy/paste, or even edit as you wish.But legally of course.
    Not many PDF to Word converters support this function, especailly the online converter.
    So you can try AnyBizSoft PDF to Word converter to change the protected PDF to Word. It’s a very cool program, the output quality is excellent. You can have a try.

  14. I use the Snipping tool in Vista and W7 to copy and paste. Much better than PrintScreen as you can copy small portions.
    You have to enable Tablet though.

  15. Just like jack mccurdy said,why not convert it to word,it can save a lot of time.but abobe acrobat is very costly,not suitable for enterprise not for common can try simpo PDF to Word to do that which is very cheap but works very well. i had tested.

  16. “Why can’t I copy/paste out of a PDF document?”
    For copying/pasting into Word. Highlight selection in PDF document, copy and go to Word (I’m using Word 2002); use “Paste Special” + “Unformatted Text.” THEN, go through and “edit” it.
    This can be time consuming BUT if you really want the information, this works.

  17. “PDF documents were originally intended as a digital replacement for paper”

    Exactly … when I print out a doc on a piece of paper I can scrawl comments across it, annotate it, etc etc.

    Now that can be done on PDFs, … and make them useful …

  18. Copy paste problem in PDF to ms word 2007
    Hi this is manohar, I have a question regarding copy/paste.

    I have a pdf file. I need to convert to ms word 2007.

    While pasting text from pdf to ms word, text is coming in unknown format(format is changing some symbols and spaces are coming).

    For example: If I want to copy ” Finite Difference Methods” it comes like this “

  19. Copy paste problem in PDF to ms word 2007
    Hi this is manohar, I have a question regarding copy/paste.

    I have a 231 pages pdf file. I need to convert it ms word 2007.

    While pasting text from pdf to ms word, text is coming in unknown format(format is changing some symbols and spaces are coming).

    For example: If I want to copy ” Finite Difference Methods” it comes like this “

  20. PDF is, primarily, a portable reading and display format, it does that very, nothing more! This sentence tells us the essence of PDF!

    so me who is not a tech guy, I really fuss with reuse of it. Apart from adobe series, which has a hefty price label. I use a PDF to Word Converter to use the text or any other content in PDF!

  21. MIKLO
    “Its just the flavor of the week app”, huh?
    Quite a long lasting flavor because it’s been around for over10 years.
    Sounds like you fail to understand and appreciate PDF documents. That’s fine with me.

  22. You might have faced difficulty in copy pasting from PDF to Word (MS Office 2007) while preparing Report and Your “Research Papers” :-P. Here I am providing an easy tutorial for doing that in an easier way. (This is my own experiment. Copy right protected :))

    Open a Blank New Document
    Copy and paste the content from PDF to Word document.
    Select the content and press “ALT+SHIFT+CTRL+S”
    A New window will be appeared on the left side. This is called “Styles” window.
    Select “Clear all” options from that.
    Now press “CTRL+F”.
    Select “Replace” in the newly opened window.
    Type “^p” in “Find What” area.
    Type a “SPACE” (Not the word Space) in the “Replace with” area.
    Click on “Replace All”
    Click “OK”.
    Clcik “Close”.
    You have done with that.
    “Happy Copy Pasting”

    [Note: By seeing the number of steps, you may feel that it is difficult and I will go with the old “Delete Space” Method.
    But if you try it once, you will see it very easy and useful. It is suitable for big document. Always do this formatting work in a new Blank document, otherwise it may affect the report which you are preparing]

    If you find this easy and useful, don’t forget to say thanks to me.


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