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This page last revised: 06 Jan 2024 23:47:33 -0500 .

How can I create a Word document that cannot be copied or modified?

Rule number 1 - If they can read it, they can copy it.
Rule number 2 - If they can copy it, they can modify it.
All you can do is make it harder.


The best way to distribute something you don't want modified is as a protected pdf. I think you will need Adobe Acrobat for this. (The above rules still apply.) A Word document, even protected, is going to have metadata in it and is designed for editing. A pdf file is designed for reading. The above rules still apply with pdf files, but you have made it harder.

Any protection method will only keep honest (or lazy) people from copying or modifying your document. Locks are there to help keep honest people honest.

Rule 1 explained. If they can see it they can copy it.

Having access to a printer and scanner a document can be printed, scanned, put through OCR and reproduced. It will take some tweaking. Without a printer, a person can take a screenshot. A viewer can take a picture with a phone. If they only have a paper copy, they can make a photocopy, or, if need be, they can take out a paper and pencil and write it down. With only a paper copy in a secure room, they can memorize it and reproduce it elsewhere.

It may be hard, but it is not impossible. All you can do is make it more difficult. The best solution is to give the document only to people you trust.

The problem with unwanted copies did not start with computers or copy machines. Counterfeiting of currency and other documents has long been a problem; it remains a problem.

Rule 2 explained. If they can copy it, they can edit/modify it.

This is essentially a corollary. If it is copied, it can be scanned with OCR or retyped. Then it can be edited.

OK - So if they really want to do it, I can't stop them. What tools do I have in Word to make it harder?

All versions of Word beginning with Word 97:

You can protect the document for forms. Even though it is not a form and has no form fields you can apply protection for forms and give it a password. For most users this means that they cannot select any text so they can't copy and paste.

You can add features like document properties and document variables to a document. This does not keep someone from copying it, it just makes it more likely that you can detect a copy or modification.

If someone knows what they are doing, this protection can be broken in less than 90 seconds. No, I'm not going to tell you how. That is an exercise left for the student.

Hint: I learned how to do this on the Internet. Our courts publish mandatory forms for lawyers to use. They are poorly designed so they are hard to use but they are password protected Word forms. I learned how to do this so I could make the forms easy for me to use, not to change the content of the form. It took some searching but the method is out there.

You can add macros to make copying/printing very difficult. Macros are easily circumvented by setting the system to not run them. For one document I designed a macro so that the content could not be viewed unless macros were allowed to run. This is not very practical and can still be circumvented.

Word 2003 and later

There are various forms of protection including password protection from opening to allowing editing only on parts. All of these are subject to Rules 1 and 2. I may write more about these later. The password for opening is very secure, it takes you back to rule 1: only show documents to people you trust.

Word 2007 and later

You can apply very strong editing restrictions. These can be found under the Developer Tab or under the Review Tab. Again these make editing harder, not impossible! Placing things in a header or footer takes them out of the principle typing level. The Group command on the Developer Tab is often overlooked. You can place things in a Rich Text Content Control and format it to not be edited or deleted (in properties). Again, these things do not absolutely prevent copying or editing. They do make it harder.

These features are not yet available in the Mac versions user interface. They can be used but easiest is to create in the Windows versions. To do this on a Mac, see Content Controls for macOS by John Korchok.

See this thread on the Microsoft Answers forum, my responses there, and this sample document with a locked header.

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