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Add a “Print Only” Watermark to PDFs

A recent post on the user to user forum asked if it was possible to add a watermark to PDFs in InDesign. The question was rather general and the first two responses were those that I would have thought of.

1. Create the watermark in ID, put it on a master page.
2. Export the file and add the watermark in Acrobat. This is a nice way of handling since it won’t show up on screen but will print. Of course if you don’t have Acrobat you can’t do it that way.

But the third response by Petteri Paananen was brilliant in its simplicity. The method allows for a quick creation of a watermark that would print but not appear on screen in Acrobat or Reader.

Here’s how it’s done. The first step of course is to create the watermark. For it to show up on every page, place it on the master and to isolate it, place it on its own layer.

Now for the fun part. Convert it to a button by right clicking (one button mousers control+click) it and choosing Interactive > Convert to Button from the contextual menu. Once that’s done open the button panel menu (the panel opens automatically in CS4) and set its properties to be invisible but printable in the PDF.

Button panel menu

In CS3 right click the button and choose button options to set the properties for the button.

You can now turn the layer visibility off to get it out your way.

Finally, in order to make this work, you must select interactive elements and all layers (the default is visible and printable) when you export the PDF or the button, and therefore, your watermark will be excluded.

PDF Export Dialog

Bob Levine

Bob Levine

Bob Levine is a graphic designer and a consultant focused on providing InDesign training and guidance in developing efficient, collaborative workflows to those moving from QuarkXPress or PageMaker. An Adobe Certified Expert in both InDesign and InCopy, Bob has written articles for InDesign Magazine and is an Adobe User to User forums host. He has more than 15 years of industry experience and has been using InDesign since version 1.0. For more background, visit his website, or his blog,
Bob Levine

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30 Comments on “Add a “Print Only” Watermark to PDFs

  1. While this is a neat idea, I can’t help but ask a noob question: in what situations would watermarking like this be used?

    The reason I ask is that I find adding password security (as insecure as it is) to prevent editing, printing and extracting of content in PDFs to be put on websites gets customers up in arms for no good reason. Adding a watermark, even if it’s in a test/preview/review PDF, would seriously tick those folks off.

  2. I’d add this to any proof being sent to a client. It’s all too easy for a client to take the lo-res pdf and use that for printing and never call you again. These clients aren’t interested in quality but would rather get it for cheaper than have a good finished product. These clients do exist, they do steal your work. Adding the watermark is another level of security to ensure your work isn’t stolen or re-purposed.

  3. Steal your work. Get %50 down before you start working for people like that. Also find out where they live or work and show up at their door and demand payment. Also do not work for scum bags.

    Lock the pdf so one can not print it would also prevent stealing.

  4. Eugene, that would be the only reason I’d watermark a PDF, but I’ve just as often been cheated that way after I’d finished a job with people wanting a PDF for “their site”, only to find out later (after I hadn’t heard from them for a few weeks) that they used it for offset printing instead. It’s quite surprising to see your work (like menus and flyers) on counters or in your mail box when you know you never arranged the print work or handed over high-res files.

    Don’t get me wrong: I don’t mind people arranging the print work themselves, especially if they have paid for the work, but I don’t like being lied to.

    Instead of watermarking PDFs, if it’s a one or two page design, I tend to create the PDF, open it in Photoshop and “save for web” so I can send 72PPI JPEGs at medium compression instead.
    It really limits the printability of the files (especially if you lower the file dimensions to better fit on screen) and it’s often faster to email as the files are smaller :)

  5. Yeh it’s unfortunate when it happens but it does happen. You can add security, watermarks, etc. to safeguard your work, but unfortunately there are ways around these, like any electronic security.

  6. I use the watermark so that teachers can print the pilot version of teaching material that I have created. It’s a several-years project (still incomplete) that they want to use now, but I still want them to buy it when it’s published.

  7. This sounds great. Since it can’t be seen in PDF this will take great discipline not to accidentally send a watermarked proof to the press. 2 questions:

    1. Is there any way to turn it on when viewing the PDF to check its there?

    2. Is there any way the client (or his designer) can REMOVE it from a PDF they receive?

    I usually use the watermark function in acrobat but this can be easily removed in Illustrator…

  8. I spent over $500 on an ebook I was planning on selling about credit harassment and had an entire site built for it and had sent a few copies out for review, the pdf was locked and secure and within 4 weeks I saw it on someones else website. I asked my web hosting company ( I know the owner ) and he said he could pretty much crack any security on a pdf ;-(

    I guess he is good to know next time I need something cracked but a bugger to know when it’s your own stuff…there are always gonna be people that find it easier to steal then create!

  9. Some people see no problem in copying an entire web site, complete with portfolio: Website plagarism. That’s a firm that boasts it does “web design”, by the way.

    Removing the security is simple (it only requires to change the permissions settings), but changing the actual text inside the PDF requires just a bit more trouble. So you can put a line somewhere in your text with the general gist of “if you did not purchase this e-book from … please contact me”.

    You said, “sent a few copies out for review”; is it one of those that got on the loose? In that case, you could have put an invisible serial number somewhere in the PDF, to track down who did it — but do mention that in an accompanying text.

  10. I’ve been trying to add a watermark to some pdfs of template designs in such a way as to make them uneditable and unusable if the pdf is opened in Illustrator. We are selling the design and printing of invitations, and the pdf is showing what options are available for purchase. Twice, I’ve had clients who hired me for printing only (not design) trick me into printing work that was a rip-off of someone else’s design, telling me instead that it was their own. So I know these shenanigans exist, and by people who know better and are skilled enough to use Illustrator.

    I tried putting copyright text on a master page; it was easily removed in Illustrator. I tried the example above using buttons. When in Acrobat, the watermark was not visible but did print. When I opened the pdf in Illustrator, the watermark was gone. It was not visible and did not print. For the time being, outlining the text and downgrading the resolution of the graphics will have to suffice – though I prefer to not have the graphics too downgraded, or prospective clients will think we do shoddy work. I would also really love there to be a function that renders the designs both uneditable, and permanently marked for printing in any software. Any chance this exists somewhere, or that Adobe is figuring it out for a future upgrade?

  11. Hi, great idea… but still without locking pdf this easy to get rid of watermark… just simply open pdf in photoshop & TA DAAAhh!! no watermark…
    For myself the best way would be using security tab in pdf export options + watermark as an extra bonus for these stealers which use pdf restricton removing software…

  12. Other uses for printed watermark…
    You can place your URL or file location on the page so that anyone who prints it knows where to find the most recent edition. This is important in organizations that use controlled documents. Users may need to be reminded that the printed page is instantly out-of-date.

    Personal opinion…
    For copy protection, do not expect anything more than a polite reminder from PDF techniques. Any use of watermarking or protection in PDF is futile. If you are making a Portable Document Format file, you should expect that someone else is going to have the ability to continue to make that document portable for their own purposes. If your business relies on your ability to control your own intellectual property, send a flattened image file (like JPG) as a proof.

  13. Yes?I agree with Jim Jordan?flat, low-res image is the most fool proof way to secure… However, this can create a serious flaw in the workflow:

    –The client signs off on the ‘final’ proof (low res jpg).
    –The designer receives final payment for the design.
    –Then the designer generates and sends them the print-ready high-res PDF version…
    However, if you don’t get them to check, and sign THAT version (which could conceivably have substituted fonts for just one example) the designer will be under much pressure to carry the re-printing cost…

    So apart from getting them to check the actual print-version (which will be viewed by the client now as a re-chek and probably won’t happen) and client sign-off AGAIN?the designer will most probably carry full liability.
    I think asking the client to do a ‘re-check’ and ‘re-sign-off’ would be unacceptable.

    Before researching the subject, I considdered sending a high res PDF?’locked’ to print only low res, until the password is given to the client on final payment. Sounded like a reasonable compromise?right?… but as we have seen in the excellent posts above?this is definitely not secure.

    Question: Does anyone have a SECURE and practicle solution?acceptable to both client and designer? Thanks!

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  16. I have been trying multiple settings with the button and the export in InDesign CC 2015 with no luck on getting this to work. Since there is no Hidden in PDF but Printable in the button menu, is there another way to do this with ID CC?

  17. I do consider all the concepts you have presented in your
    post. They’re very convincing and can definitely work.
    Nonetheless, the posts are too quick for beginners. Could you please prolong them a little from next time?
    Thank you for the post.

  18. I’m impressed, I have to say. Actually rarely do I encounter a blog that’s each educative and entertaining, and let me inform you, you will have hit the nail on the head. Your thought is outstanding; the issue is one thing that not enough individuals are speaking intelligently about. I am very completely satisfied that I stumbled throughout this in my search for one thing regarding this.

  19. Hello,

    I’m having been trying to setup this Watermark but am experiencing some difficulty using InDesign 2015.2 on the PC platform. When I export my PDF, the watermark I created does not appear. However, it doesn’t appear when I print it either. There must be something I am doing wrong during the export. Any help you can provide will be helpful!


    • In order for this trick to work with recent versions of ID, you must set the button to be “hidden until triggered” in the Buttons and Forms panel, and set it to “Printable”. And then, you must export an Interactive PDF, not a Print PDF.

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