The Portable Document Format (PDF) is a file format used to present documents in a manner independent of application software, hardware, and operating systems. Each PDF file encapsulates a complete description of a fixed-layout flat document, including the text, fonts, graphics, and other information needed to display it.
Adobe PDF icon
|Internet media type||
|Type code||'PDF ' (including a single space)|
|Uniform Type Identifier (UTI)||com.adobe.pdf|
|Initial release||15 June 1993|
|Extended to||PDF/A, PDF/E, PDF/UA, PDF/VT, PDF/X|
PDF was developed in the early 1990s as a way to share computer documents, including text formatting and inline images. It was among a number of competing formats such as DjVu, Envoy, Common Ground Digital Paper, Farallon Replica and even Adobe's own PostScript format. In those early years before the rise of the World Wide Web and HTML documents, PDF was popular mainly in desktop publishing workflows. Adobe Systems made the PDF specification available free of charge in 1993. PDF was a proprietary format controlled by Adobe, until it was officially released as an open standard on July 1, 2008, and published by the International Organization for Standardization as ISO 32000-1:2008, at which time control of the specification passed to an ISO Committee of volunteer industry experts. In 2008, Adobe published a Public Patent License to ISO 32000-1 granting royalty-free rights for all patents owned by Adobe that are necessary to make, use, sell, and distribute PDF compliant implementations.
On July 28, 2017, ISO 32000-2 was published by the ISO. ISO 32000-2 does not include any proprietary technologies as normative references. 
The PDF combines three technologies:
PostScript is a page description language run in an interpreter to generate an image, a process requiring many resources. It can handle graphics and standard features of programming languages such as
loop commands. PDF is largely based on PostScript but simplified to remove flow control features like these, while graphics commands such as
Often, the PostScript-like PDF code is generated from a source PostScript file. The graphics commands that are output by the PostScript code are collected and tokenized. Any files, graphics, or fonts to which the document refers also are collected. Then, everything is compressed to a single file. Therefore, the entire PostScript world (fonts, layout, measurements) remains intact.
As a document format, PDF has several advantages over PostScript:
A PDF file is a 7-bit ASCII file, except for certain elements that may have binary content. A PDF file starts with a header containing the magic number and the version of the format such as
%PDF-1.7. The format is a subset of a COS ("Carousel" Object Structure) format. A COS tree file consists primarily of objects, of which there are eight types:
(...)), may contain 8-bit characters.
Furthermore, there may be comments, introduced with the percent sign (
%). Comments may contain 8-bit characters.
Objects may be either direct (embedded in another object) or indirect. Indirect objects are numbered with an object number and a generation number and defined between the
endobj keywords. An index table, also called the cross-reference table and marked with the
xref keyword, follows the main body and gives the byte offset of each indirect object from the start of the file. This design allows for efficient random access to the objects in the file, and also allows for small changes to be made without rewriting the entire file (incremental update). Beginning with PDF version 1.5, indirect objects may also be located in special streams known as object streams. This technique reduces the size of files that have large numbers of small indirect objects and is especially useful for Tagged PDF.
At the end of a PDF file is a trailer introduced with the
trailer keyword. It contains
The dictionary contains
There are two layouts to the PDF files: non-linear (not "optimized") and linear ("optimized"). Non-linear PDF files consume less disk space than their linear counterparts, though they are slower to access because portions of the data required to assemble pages of the document are scattered throughout the PDF file. Linear PDF files (also called "optimized" or "web optimized" PDF files) are constructed in a manner that enables them to be read in a Web browser plugin without waiting for the entire file to download, since they are written to disk in a linear (as in page order) fashion. PDF files may be optimized using Adobe Acrobat software or QPDF.
PDF graphics use a device-independent Cartesian coordinate system to describe the surface of a page. A PDF page description can use a matrix to scale, rotate, or skew graphical elements. A key concept in PDF is that of the graphics state, which is a collection of graphical parameters that may be changed, saved, and restored by a page description. PDF has (as of version 1.6) 24 graphics state properties, of which some of the most important are:
As in PostScript, vector graphics in PDF are constructed with paths. Paths are usually composed of lines and cubic Bézier curves, but can also be constructed from the outlines of text. Unlike PostScript, PDF does not allow a single path to mix text outlines with lines and curves. Paths can be stroked, filled, clipping. Strokes and fills can use any color set in the graphics state, including patterns.
PDF supports several types of patterns. The simplest is the tiling pattern in which a piece of artwork is specified to be drawn repeatedly. This may be a colored tiling pattern, with the colors specified in the pattern object, or an uncolored tiling pattern, which defers color specification to the time the pattern is drawn. Beginning with PDF 1.3 there is also a shading pattern, which draws continuously varying colors. There are seven types of shading pattern of which the simplest are the axial shade (Type 2) and radial shade (Type 3).
Raster images in PDF (called Image XObjects) are represented by dictionaries with an associated stream. The dictionary describes properties of the image, and the stream contains the image data. (Less commonly, a raster image may be embedded directly in a page description as an inline image.) Images are typically filtered for compression purposes. Image filters supported in PDF include the general purpose filters
Normally all image content in a PDF is embedded in the file. But PDF allows image data to be stored in external files by the use of external streams or Alternate Images. Standardized subsets of PDF, including PDF/A and PDF/X, prohibit these features.
Text in PDF is represented by text elements in page content streams. A text element specifies that characters should be drawn at certain positions. The characters are specified using the encoding of a selected font resource.
A font object in PDF is a description of a digital typeface. It may either describe the characteristics of a typeface, or it may include an embedded font file. The latter case is called an embedded font while the former is called an unembedded font. The font files that may be embedded are based on widely used standard digital font formats: Type 1 (and its compressed variant CFF), TrueType, and (beginning with PDF 1.6) OpenType. Additionally PDF supports the Type 3 variant in which the components of the font are described by PDF graphic operators.
Fourteen typefaces, known as the standard 14 fonts, have a special significance in PDF documents:
These fonts are sometimes called the base fourteen fonts. These fonts, or suitable substitute fonts with the same metrics, should be available in most PDF readers, but they are not guaranteed to be available in the reader, and may only display correctly if the system has them installed. Fonts may be substituted if they are not embedded in a PDF.
Within text strings, characters are shown using character codes (integers) that map to glyphs in the current font using an encoding. There are a number of predefined encodings, including WinAnsi, MacRoman, and a large number of encodings for East Asian languages, and a font can have its own built-in encoding. (Although the WinAnsi and MacRoman encodings are derived from the historical properties of the Windows and Macintosh operating systems, fonts using these encodings work equally well on any platform.) PDF can specify a predefined encoding to use, the font's built-in encoding or provide a lookup table of differences to a predefined or built-in encoding (not recommended with TrueType fonts). The encoding mechanisms in PDF were designed for Type 1 fonts, and the rules for applying them to TrueType fonts are complex.
For large fonts or fonts with non-standard glyphs, the special encodings Identity-H (for horizontal writing) and Identity-V (for vertical) are used. With such fonts it is necessary to provide a ToUnicode table if semantic information about the characters is to be preserved.
The original imaging model of PDF was, like PostScript's, opaque: each object drawn on the page completely replaced anything previously marked in the same location. In PDF 1.4 the imaging model was extended to allow transparency. When transparency is used, new objects interact with previously marked objects to produce blending effects. The addition of transparency to PDF was done by means of new extensions that were designed to be ignored in products written to the PDF 1.3 and earlier specifications. As a result, files that use a small amount of transparency might view acceptably in older viewers, but files making extensive use of transparency could be viewed incorrectly in an older viewer without warning.
The transparency extensions are based on the key concepts of transparency groups, blending modes, shape, and alpha. The model is closely aligned with the features of Adobe Illustrator version 9. The blend modes were based on those used by Adobe Photoshop at the time. When the PDF 1.4 specification was published, the formulas for calculating blend modes were kept secret by Adobe. They have since been published.
The concept of a transparency group in PDF specification is independent of existing notions of "group" or "layer" in applications such as Adobe Illustrator. Those groupings reflect logical relationships among objects that are meaningful when editing those objects, but they are not part of the imaging model.
PDF files may contain interactive elements such as annotations, form fields, video, 3D and rich media.
Rich Media PDF is a term that is used to describe a PDF file including interactive content that can be embedded or linked within the file.
Interactive Forms is a mechanism to add forms to the PDF file format.
Alongside the standard PDF action types, interactive forms (AcroForms) support submitting, resetting, and importing data. The "submit" action transmits the names and values of selected interactive form fields to a specified uniform resource locator (URL). Interactive form field names and values may be submitted in any of the following formats, (depending on the settings of the action’s ExportFormat, SubmitPDF, and XFDF flags):
AcroForms can keep form field values in external stand-alone files containing key:value pairs. The external files may use Forms Data Format (FDF) and XML Forms Data Format (XFDF) files. The usage rights (UR) signatures define rights for import form data files in FDF, XFDF and text (CSV/TSV) formats, and export form data files in FDF and XFDF formats.
|Internet media type||
|Developed by||Adobe Systems|
|Initial release||1996(PDF 1.2)|
The Forms Data Format (FDF) is based on PDF, it uses the same syntax and has essentially the same file structure, but is much simpler than PDF, since the body of an FDF document consists of only one required object. Forms Data Format is defined in the PDF specification (since PDF 1.2). The Forms Data Format can be used when submitting form data to a server, receiving the response, and incorporating into the interactive form. It can also be used to export form data to stand-alone files that can be imported back into the corresponding PDF interactive form.
Beginning in PDF 1.3, FDF can be used to define a container for annotations that are separate from the PDF document they apply to. FDF typically encapsulates information such as X.509 certificates, requests for certificates, directory settings, timestamp server settings, and embedded PDF files for network transmission. The FDF uses the MIME content type application/vnd.fdf, filename extension .fdf and on Mac OS it uses file type 'FDF'.
|Internet media type||
|Developed by||Adobe Systems|
|Initial release||July 2003(referenced in PDF 1.5)|
|Extended from||PDF, FDF, XML|
|Website||XFDF 3.0 specification|
As of December 2016, XFDF 3.0 is an ISO/IEC standard under the formal name ISO 19444-1:2016 - Document management - XML Forms Data Format - Part 1: Use of ISO 32000-2 (XFDF 3.0). This standard is a normative reference of ISO 32000-2.
XFDF can be used the same way as FDF; e.g., form data is submitted to a server, modifications are made, then sent back and the new form data is imported in an interactive form. It can also be used to export form data to stand-alone files that can be imported back into the corresponding PDF interactive form.
In PDF 1.5, Adobe Systems introduced a proprietary format for forms; Adobe XML Forms Architecture (XFA). Adobe XFA Forms are not compatible with ISO 32000's AcroForms feature, and most PDF processors do not handle XFA content. The XFA specification is referenced from ISO 32000-1 / PDF 1.7 as an external proprietary specification, and was entirely deprecated from PDF with ISO 32000-2 (PDF 2.0).
A "tagged" PDF (see clause 14.8 in ISO 32000) includes document structure and semantics information to enable reliable text extraction and accessibility. Technically speaking, tagged PDF is a stylized use of the format that builds on the logical structure framework introduced in PDF 1.3. Tagged PDF defines a set of standard structure types and attributes that allow page content (text, graphics, and images) to be extracted and reused for other purposes.
Tagged PDF is not required in situations where a PDF file is intended only for print. Since the feature is optional, and since the rules for Tagged PDF were relatively vague in ISO 32000-1, support for tagged PDF amongst consuming devices, including assistive technology (AT), is uneven at this time. ISO 32000-2, however, includes an improved discussion of tagged PDF which is anticipated to facilitate
An ISO-standardized subset of PDF specifically targeted at accessibility; PDF/UA, was first published in 2012.
With the introduction of PDF version 1.5 (2003) came the concept of Layers. Layers, or as they are more formally known Optional Content Groups (OCGs), refer to sections of content in a PDF document that can be selectively viewed or hidden by document authors or consumers. This capability is useful in CAD drawings, layered artwork, maps, multi-language documents etc. Basically, it consists of an Optional Content Properties Dictionary added to the document root. This dictionary contains an array of Optional Content Groups (OCGs), each describing a set of information and each of which may be individually displayed or suppressed, plus a set of Optional Content Configuration Dictionaries, which give the status (Displayed or Suppressed) of the given OCGs.
A PDF file may be encrypted for security, or digitally signed for authentication. However, since a SHA-1 collision was discovered making use of the PDF format, digital signatures using SHA-1 have been shown to be insecure.
The standard security provided by Acrobat PDF consists of two different methods and two different passwords: a user password, which encrypts the file and prevents opening, and an owner password, which specifies operations that should be restricted even when the document is decrypted, which can include modifying, printing, or copying text and graphics out of the document, or adding or modifying text notes and AcroForm fields. The user password encrypts the file, while the owner password does not, instead relying on client software to respect these restrictions. An owner password can easily be removed by software, including some free online services. Thus, the use restrictions that a document author places on a PDF document are not secure, and cannot be assured once the file is distributed; this warning is displayed when applying such restrictions using Adobe Acrobat software to create or edit PDF files.
Even without removing the password, most freeware or open source PDF readers ignore the permission "protections" and allow the user to print or make copy of excerpts of the text as if the document were not limited by password protection.
There are a number of commercial solutions that offer more robust means of information rights management. Not only can they restrict document access but they also reliably enforce permissions in ways that the standard security handler does not.
Beginning with PDF 1.5, Usage rights (UR) signatures are used to enable additional interactive features that are not available by default in a particular PDF viewer application. The signature is used to validate that the permissions have been granted by a bona fide granting authority. For example, it can be used to allow a user:
For example, Adobe Systems grants permissions to enable additional features in Adobe Reader, using public-key cryptography. Adobe Reader verifies that the signature uses a certificate from an Adobe-authorized certificate authority. Any PDF application can use this same mechanism for its own purposes.
PDF files can have file attachments which processors may access and open or save to a local filesystem.
PDF files can contain two types of metadata. The first is the Document Information Dictionary, a set of key/value fields such as author, title, subject, creation and update dates. This is stored in the optional Info trailer of the file. A small set of fields is defined, and can be extended with additional text values if required. This method is deprecated in PDF 2.0.
In PDF 1.4, support was added for Metadata Streams, using the Extensible Metadata Platform (XMP) to add XML standards-based extensible metadata as used in other file formats. This allows metadata to be attached to any stream in the document, such as information about embedded illustrations, as well as the whole document (attaching to the document catalog), using an extensible schema.
Anyone may create applications that can read and write PDF files without having to pay royalties to Adobe Systems; Adobe holds patents to PDF, but licenses them for royalty-free use in developing software complying with its PDF specification.
PDF files can be created specifically to be accessible for disabled people. PDF file formats in use as of 2014 can include tags, text equivalents, captions, audio descriptions, and more. Some software can automatically produce tagged PDFs, but this feature is not always enabled by default. Leading screen readers, including JAWS, Window-Eyes, Hal, and Kurzweil 1000 and 3000 can read tagged PDF. Moreover, tagged PDFs can be re-flowed and magnified for readers with visual impairments. Adding tags to older PDFs and those that are generated from scanned documents can present some challenges.
One of the significant challenges with PDF accessibility is that PDF documents have three distinct views, which, depending on the document's creation, can be inconsistent with each other. The three views are (i) the physical view, (ii) the tags view, and (iii) the content view. The physical view is displayed and printed (what most people consider a PDF document). The tags view is what screen readers and other assistive technologies use to deliver a high-quality navigation and reading experience to users with disabilities. The content view is based on the physical order of objects within the PDF's content stream and may be displayed by software that does not fully support the tags view, such as the Reflow feature in Adobe's Reader.
PDF/UA, the International Standard for accessible PDF based on ISO 32000-1 was first published as ISO 14289-1 in 2012, and establishes normative language for accessible PDF technology.
PDF attachments carrying viruses were first discovered in 2001. The virus, named OUTLOOK.PDFWorm or Peachy, uses Microsoft Outlook to send itself as an attachment to an Adobe PDF file. It was activated with Adobe Acrobat, but not with Acrobat Reader.
On March 30, 2010 security researcher Didier Stevens reported an Adobe Reader and Foxit Reader exploit that runs a malicious executable if the user allows it to launch when asked.
PDFs may be encrypted so that a password is needed to view or edit the contents. PDF 2.0 defines 256-bit AES encryption as standard for PDF 2.0 files. The PDF Reference also defines ways that third parties can define their own encryption systems for PDF.
PDF files may be digitally signed; complete details on implementing digital signatures in PDF is provided in ISO 32000-2.
PDF files may also contain embedded DRM restrictions that provide further controls that limit copying, editing or printing. These restrictions depend on the reader software to obey them, so the security they provide is limited.
PDF documents can contain display settings, including the page display layout and zoom level. Adobe Reader uses these settings to override the user's default settings when opening the document. The free Adobe Reader cannot remove these settings.
Two PDF files that look similar on a computer screen may be of very different sizes. For example, a high resolution raster image takes more space than a low resolution one. Typically higher resolution is needed for printing documents than for displaying them on screen. Other things that may increase the size of a file is embedding full fonts, especially for Asiatic scripts, and storing text as graphics.
PDF viewers are generally provided free of charge, and many versions are available from a variety of sources.
There are many software options for creating PDFs, including the PDF printing capabilities built into macOS and most Linux distributions, LibreOffice, Microsoft Office 2007 (if updated to SP2) and later, WordPerfect 9, Scribus, numerous PDF print drivers for Microsoft Windows, the pdfTeX typesetting system, the DocBook PDF tools, applications developed around Ghostscript and Adobe Acrobat itself as well as Adobe InDesign, Adobe FrameMaker, Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop. Google's online office suite Google Docs also allows for uploading and saving to PDF.
Raster image processors (RIPs) are used to convert PDF files into a raster format suitable for imaging onto paper and other media in printers, digital production presses and prepress in a process known as rasterisation. RIPs capable of processing PDF directly include the Adobe PDF Print Engine from Adobe Systems and Jaws and the Harlequin RIP from Global Graphics.
Adobe Illustrator reads and writes PDF as a semi-native format. With multipage documents, a dialog opens enabling the user to select a single page to edit. Editing paragraphs of text typically disturbs line justification and paragraph wrapping, as multiline text is converted to individual lines. In a multipage document, only the page being edited can be re-saved.
Scribus allows opening and editing multi-page PDF, then document can be exported again as PDF.
Serif PagePlus can open, edit and save existing PDF documents, as well as publishing of documents created in the package.
Adobe Acrobat is one example of proprietary software that allows the user to annotate, highlight, and add notes to already created PDF files. One UNIX application available as free software (under the GNU General Public License) is PDFedit. Another GPL-licensed application native to the unix environment is Xournal. Xournal allows for annotating in different fonts and colours, as well as a rule for quickly underlining and highlighting lines of text or paragraphs. Xournal also has a shape recognition tool for squares, rectangles and circles. In Xournal annotations may be moved, copied and pasted. The freeware Foxit Reader, available for Microsoft Windows, macOS and Linux, allows annotating documents. Tracker Software's PDF-XChange Viewer allows annotations and markups without restrictions in its freeware alternative. Apple's macOS's integrated PDF viewer, Preview, does also enable annotations as does the freeware Skim, with the latter supporting interaction with LaTeX, SyncTeX, and PDFSync and integration with BibDesk reference management software. Freeware Qiqqa can create an annotation report that summarizes all the annotations and notes one has made across their library of PDFs.
For mobile annotation, iAnnotate PDF (from Branchfire) and GoodReader (from Aji) allow annotation of PDFs as well as exporting summaries of the annotations.
In cases where PDFs are expected to have all of the functionality of paper documents, ink annotation is required. Some programs that accept ink input from the mouse may not be responsive enough for handwriting input on a tablet. Existing solutions on the PC include PDF Annotator and Qiqqa.
In 1993 the Jaws raster image processor from Global Graphics became the first shipping prepress RIP that interpreted PDF natively without conversion to another format. The company released an upgrade to their Harlequin RIP with the same capability in 1997.
Agfa-Gevaert introduced and shipped Apogee, the first prepress workflow system based on PDF, in 1997.
Many commercial offset printers have accepted the submission of press-ready PDF files as a print source, specifically the PDF/X-1a subset and variations of the same. The submission of press-ready PDF files are a replacement for the problematic need for receiving collected native working files.
PDF was selected as the "native" metafile format for Mac OS X, replacing the PICT format of the earlier classic Mac OS. The imaging model of the Quartz graphics layer is based on the model common to Display PostScript and PDF, leading to the nickname Display PDF. The Preview application can display PDF files, as can version 2.0 and later of the Safari web browser. System-level support for PDF allows Mac OS X applications to create PDF documents automatically, provided they support the OS-standard printing architecture. The files are then exported in PDF 1.3 format according to the file header. When taking a screenshot under Mac OS X versions 10.0 through 10.3, the image was also captured as a PDF; later versions save screen captures as a PNG file, though this behaviour can be set back to PDF if desired.
In 2006 PDF was widely accepted as the standard print job format at the Open Source Development Labs Printing Summit. It is supported as a print job format by the Common Unix Printing System and desktop application projects such as GNOME, KDE, Firefox, Thunderbird, LibreOffice and OpenOffice have switched to emit print jobs in PDF.
Some desktop printers also support direct PDF printing, which can interpret PDF data without external help. Currently, all PDF capable printers also support PostScript, but most PostScript printers do not support direct PDF printing.
The Free Software Foundation once considered one of their high priority projects to be "developing a free, high-quality and fully functional set of libraries and programs that implement the PDF file format and associated technologies to the ISO 32000 standard." In 2011, however, the GNU PDF project was removed from the list of "high priority projects" due to the maturation of the Poppler library, which has enjoyed wider use in applications such as Evince with the GNOME desktop environment. Poppler is based on Xpdf code base. There are also commercial development libraries available as listed in List of PDF software.
Example: ISO/IEC 29500, ISO/IEC 26300 and ISO 32000 for document formats reference information that is not accessible by all parties (references to proprietary technology and brand names, incomplete scope or dead web links).
XFA is not to be ISO standard just yet. ... The Committee urges Adobe Systems to submit the XFA Specification, XML Forms Architecture (XFA), to ISO for standardization ... The Committee is concerned about the stability of the XFA specification ... Part 2 will reference XFA 3.1
... the implementation of the U3D standard was not complete and proprietary extensions were used.