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The application/pdf Media Type
RFC 3778

Document Type RFC - Informational (May 2004)
Obsoleted by RFC 8118
Was draft-zilles-pdf (individual in app area)
Authors E.A Taft , Larry M Masinter , Steve N. Zilles , James D. Pravetz
Last updated 2013-03-02
RFC stream Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
IESG Responsible AD Scott Hollenbeck
Send notices to (None)
RFC 3778
Network Working Group                                            E. Taft
Request for Comments: 3778                                    J. Pravetz
Category: Informational                                        S. Zilles
                                                             L. Masinter
                                                           Adobe Systems
                                                                May 2004

                     The application/pdf Media Type

Status of this Memo

   This memo provides information for the Internet community.  It does
   not specify an Internet standard of any kind.  Distribution of this
   memo is unlimited.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright (C) The Internet Society (2004).  All Rights Reserved.


   PDF, the 'Portable Document Format', is a general document
   representation language that has been in use for document exchange on
   the Internet since 1993.  This document provides an overview of the
   PDF format, explains the mechanisms for digital signatures and
   encryption within PDF files, and updates the media type registration
   of 'application/pdf'.

Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   2
   2.  History . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   3
   3.  Fragment Identifiers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   3
   4.  Encryption. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   4
   5.  Digital Signatures. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   5
   6.  PDF implementations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
   7.  Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
   8.  IANA Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
   9.  References. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
       9.1.  Normative References. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
       9.2.  Informative References. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10
   10. Authors' Addresses. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  12
   11. Full Copyright Statement. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  14

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1.  Introduction

   This document is intended to provide updated information on the
   registration of the MIME Media Type "application/pdf", with
   particular focus on the features that help mitigate security
   concerns.  This document refers to features documented in the PDF
   References versions 1 [1], 1.3 [2], 1.4 [3] and 1.5 [4], as updated
   by errata [5].

   PDF is used widely in the Internet Community.  Since PDF was
   introduced in 1993, it has grown to be a widely-used format for
   capturing and exchanging formatted documents electronically, across
   the Web, via e-mail, and, for that matter, virtually every other
   document exchange mechanism.

   PDF represents formatted documents.  These documents may be
   structured or simple.  They may contain text, images, graphics, and
   other multimedia content, such as video and audio.  There is support
   for annotations, metadata, hypertext links, and bookmarks.

   PDF supports encryption and digital signatures in the document.  The
   encryption capability is also combined with access control
   information in a way that is intended to manage the uses that a
   recipient can make of a document.

   PDF usage is specified in other international standards.  ISO 15930-
   1:2001 PDF/X [16] has been adopted as the exchange standard for
   electronic documents within the Prepress community.  PDF/X is a
   profile of PDF that references the PDF Reference, Third edition [2],
   as the source specification.

   Another profile of PDF, known as PDF/A [17], is being developed for
   use as an international standard as an electronic document file
   format for long-term preservation.  Following the work on PDF/X, the
   activity is joint work between NPES (The Association for Suppliers of
   Printing, Publishing and Converting Technologies) and AIIM
   International (the Association for Information and Image Management,
   International).  AIIM is the secretariat for ISO/TC 171 SC2, Document
   Imaging Applications.

   PDF usage is widespread enough for 'application/pdf' to be used in
   other IETF specifications.  RFC 2346 [15] describes how to better
   structure PDF files for international exchange of documents where
   different paper sizes are used; HTTP byte range retrieval is
   illustrated using application/pdf (RFC 2616 [14], Section 19.2); RFC
   3297 [13] illustrates how PDF can be sent to a recipient that
   identifies his ability to accept the PDF using content negotiation.

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2.  History

   PDF was originally envisioned as a way to communicate and view
   printed information electronically across a wide variety of machine
   configurations, operating systems, and communication networks in a
   reliable manner.

   PDF relies on the same imaging model as the PostScript page
   description language to render complex text, images, and graphics in
   a device and resolution-independent manner, bringing this feature to
   the screen as well as the printer.  To improve performance for
   interactive viewing, PDF defines a more structured format than that
   used by most PostScript language programs.  PDF also includes
   objects, such as hypertext links and annotations, that are not part
   of the page itself, but are useful for building collections of
   related documents and for reviewing and commenting on documents.

   The application/pdf media type was first registered in 1993 by Paul
   Lindner for use by the gopher protocol; the registration was
   subsequently updated in 1994 by Steve Zilles.

3.  Fragment Identifiers

   The handling of fragment identifiers [6] is currently defined in
   Adobe Technical Note 5428 [7].  This section summarizes that

   A fragment identifier consists of one or more PDF-open parameters in
   a single URL, separated by the ampersand (&) or pound (#) character.
   Each parameter implies an action to be performed and the value to be
   used for that action.  Actions are processed and executed from left
   to right as they appear in the character string that makes up the
   fragment identifier.

   The PDF-open parameters allow the specification of a particular page
   or named destination to open.  Named destinations are similar to the
   "anchors" used in HTML or the IDs used in XML.  Once the target is
   specified, the view of the page in which it occurs can be specified,
   either by specifying the position of a viewing rectangle and its
   scale or size coordinates or by specifying a view relative to the
   viewing window in which the chosen page is to be presented.

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   The list of PDF-open parameters and the action they imply is:

      Open to a specified named destination (which includes a view).

      Open the specified (physical) page.

      Set the <scale> and scrolling factors. <left>, and <top> are
      measured from the top left corner of the page, independent of the
      size of the page.  The pair <left> and <top> are optional but both
      must appear if present.

      Set the view to show some specified portion of the page or its
      bounding box; keywords are defined by Table 8.2 of the PDF
      Reference, version 1.5.  The <position> value is required for some
      of the keywords and not allowed for others.

      As with the zoom parameter, set the scale and scrolling factors,
      but using an explicit width and height instead of a scale

      Highlight a rectangle on the chosen page where <lt>, <rt>, <top>,
      and <btm> are the coordinates of the sides of the rectangle
      measured from the top left corner of the page.

   All specified actions are executed in order; later actions will
   override the effects of previous actions; for this reason, page
   actions should appear before zoom actions.  Commands are not case
   sensitive (except for the value of a named destination).

4.  Encryption

   PDF files allow access to be controlled using encryption and
   permission settings.  A document's data decryption keys and
   permission settings are provided by encryption handlers.  An
   'Encryption Dictionary' is provided in the document trailer to enable
   encryption handlers to store document-specific information.
   Different encryption handlers can provide for different sets of
   permissions.  The PDF encoding rules for password and public key
   encryption handlers are specified in the PDF Reference.

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   A person that is able to 'access' a document is said to be able to
   open and view the document.  Access is possible when a person can
   provide the key with which to decrypt the document.  The key is
   protected and provided by the encryption handler.  Encryption
   handlers will normally require some sort of authentication before a
   person can access the document decryption key.

   Encryption of PDF files is normally applied to all string and stream
   data in the document, and only to string and stream data.  By
   encrypting only data portions of the PDF file, random access to PDF
   file contents is maintained.  The data is normally encrypted using
   the 40 to 128-bit RC4 [8] encryption algorithm.  Use of decryption
   filters allow algorithms other than RC4 to be used.

   The person that has access to a document will be given certain
   permissions for the document.  A person that has full permissions,
   including permission to save a document without encryption, is said
   to be an 'owner'.  A person that has restricted permissions is said
   to be a 'user'.  Example permissions include the ability to copy text
   and other content from the PDF file, the ability to fill in form
   field data, and the ability to print the PDF file.  Enforcement of
   permissions is the responsibility of the viewing application.

   Password encryption allows the possibility of two different passwords
   to be used when providing access to the document.  The 'author'
   password allows access to the document and full permissions,
   including the permission to save the document without encryption.
   The 'user' password allows access to the document, but access is
   restricted by a set of permissions.

   Public key encryption of PDF files uses one or more PKCS#7 [9]
   objects to store information regarding recipients that are able to
   open a document.  Each PKCS#7 object contains a list of recipients, a
   document decryption key, and permission settings that apply to all
   recipients listed for that PKCS#7 object.  The document decryption
   key is protected with a triple-DES key that is encrypted once with
   the public key of each listed recipient.

5.  Digital Signatures

   A digital signature can be used to authenticate the identity of a
   user and the validity of a document's contents.  PDF supports the
   association of a digital signature with a complete record that is
   needed to reproduce a visual representation of what a person saw when
   they signed the PDF file.  PDF digital signatures allows for multiple
   signers to update and sign the same document; a subsequent user may
   then view the state of the document at each point when any individual
   signature was applied.

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   The full specification for PDF digital signatures is contained in the
   PDF Reference [4] section 8.7 and Appendix I; an overview is provided

   PDF signature information is stored in a 'signature dictionary' data
   structure.  A signature is created by computing a digest of the data
   stored in the document.  To verify the signature, the digest is
   recomputed and compared with the one stored in the document.
   Differences in the digest values indicate that modifications have
   been made since the document was signed.

   All bytes of the PDF file are covered by the signature digest,
   including the signature dictionary, but excluding the signature value
   itself.  The range of bytes is defined and stored as the value of the
   ByteRange key in the signature dictionary.  The ByteRange value is an
   array of integer pairs, where each pair includes a starting byte
   offset and length in bytes.  There are two pairs, one describing the
   range of bytes preceding the signature value, and the other
   describing the range of bytes that occur after the signature value.

   PDF public key digital signature syntax is specified for PKCS#1 [11]
   and PKCS#7 [9] signatures.  In both cases, all bytes of the PDF file
   are signed, with the exclusion of the PKCS#1 or PKCS#7, signature
   value, objects.

   The signature dictionary contains additional attributes.  The
   'SubFilter' attribute describes the encoding of the signature value,
   and the 'Contents' attribute contains the signature value which is
   normally hex (base16) encoded.  There are currently three recommended
   SubFilter types:

      In this case, the Contents key contains a DER-encoded PKCS#1 [11]
      binary data object representing the signature obtained as the RSA
      encryption of the byte range SHA-1 digest with the signer's
      private key.  When using PKCS#1, the certificate chain of the
      signer is included with other signature information in the signed

      In this case, the value of Contents is a DER-encoded PKCS#7 binary
      data object containing the signature.  The SHA1 digest of the byte
      range is encapsulated in the PKCS#7 signed-data field with
      ContentInfo of type "data".

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      In this case, the value of Contents is a DER-encoded PKCS#7 binary
      data object containing the signature.  No data is encapsulated in
      the PKCS#7 signed-data field.

   If the type of signature is 'adbe.x509.rsa_sha1', the signature
   dictionary includes a key named 'Cert', which contains at least the
   signer's X.509 public-key certificate represented as a binary string.
   The value could also be an array of strings where the first entry is
   the signer's certificate and the following entries are one or more
   issuer certifications from the signer's trust chain.

   If the type of signature is 'adbe.pkcs7.sha1' or
   'adbe.pkcs7.detached', the 'Cert' key is not used and the certificate
   must be put in the PKCS#7 object stored in the 'Contents' key.  The
   minimum required certificate to include in the PKCS#7 object is the
   signer's X.509 signing certificate.  It may also optionally contain
   one or more issuer certifications from the signer's trust chain.

   Multiple signatures are supported using the incremental save
   capabilities of PDF.  When changes to a file are made and a new
   signature is applied to the document, the changes are appended after
   the last byte of the previously existing document and then the new
   signature digest is of all bytes of the new file.  In this manner,
   changes can be made to a document and new signatures added to a
   document without invalidating earlier signatures that have been
   applied to the PDF file.  Any change to a document is detected
   because all bytes of the PDF file are digested.

   The state of a signed document, when an earlier signature of a
   multiple signature document was applied, can be viewed by extracting
   the earlier set of bytes of the file and opening them in a PDF
   viewing application.  This process is called 'rollback' and allows
   viewing of the exact state of the document when it was signed.

   PDF syntax allows for 'author' and 'user' signatures.  Under normal
   circumstances the first signature of a document is considered an
   author signature and all other signatures are considered user
   signatures.  Authors can specify what changes are to be allowed to
   the PDF file before the author's signature is presented as invalid.
   Example changes include the ability to fill in form field data, the
   ability to add comments to a document, the ability to make no
   changes, and the ability to make any changes.  Changes are detected
   by opening the existing document and the author's version of the
   document and performing a complete object compare of the two
   documents.  Change detection is not a substitute for the legal value
   of document rollback.

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6.  PDF Implementations

   There are a number of widely available, independently implemented,
   interoperable implementations of PDF for a wide variety of platforms
   and systems.  Because PDF is a publicly available specification,
   hundreds of companies and organizations make PDF creation, viewing,
   and manipulation tools.  For examples, see descriptions or tools
   lists from Adobe [20], Apple [21], Ghostscript [22], Planet PDF [18],
   and [19].

7.  Security Considerations

   An "application/pdf" resource contains information to be parsed and
   processed by the recipient's PDF system.  Because PDF is both a
   representation of formatted documents and a container system for the
   resources need to reproduce or view said documents, it is possible
   that a PDF file has embedded resources not described in the PDF

   Although it is not a defined feature of PDF, a PDF processor could
   extract these resources and store them on the recipients system.
   Furthermore, a PDF processor may accept and execute "plug-in" modules
   accessible to the recipient.  These may also access material in the
   PDF file or on the recipients system.  Therefore, care in
   establishing the source, security, and reliability of such plug-ins
   is recommended.  Message-sending software should not make use of
   arbitrary plug-ins without prior agreement on their presence at the
   intended recipients.  Message-receiving and -displaying software
   should make sure that any non-standard plug-ins are secure and do not
   present a security threat.

   PDF may contain "scripts" to customize the displaying and processing
   of PDF files.  These scripts are expressed in a version of JavaScript
   [10] based on JavaScript version 1.5 of ISO-16262 (formerly known as
   ECMAScript).  These scripts have access to an API that is similar to
   the "plug-in" API.  They are intended for execution by the PDF
   processor.  User agents executing such scripts or programs must be
   extremely careful to insure that untrusted software is executed in a
   protected environment.

   In addition, JavaScript code might modify the appearance of a PDF
   document.  For this reason, validation of digital signatures should
   take this into account.

   In general, any information stored outside of the direct control of
   the user -- including referenced application software or plug-ins and
   embedded files, scripts or other material not covered in the PDF
   reference -- can be a source of insecurity, by either obvious or

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   subtle means.  For example, a script can modify the content of a
   document prior to its being displayed.  Thus, the security of any PDF
   document may be dependent on the resources referenced by that

   As noted above, PDF provides mechanism for helping insure the
   integrity of a PDF file, Encryption (Section 4), and to be able to
   digitally sign (Section 5) a PDF file.  The latter capability allows
   a recipient to decide if he is willing to trust the file.

   Where there is concern that tampering with the PDF file might be a
   problem, it is recommended that the encryption and digital signature
   features be used to protect and authenticate the PDF.

   In addition, PDF processors may have mechanisms that track the source
   of scripts or plug-ins and will execute only those scripts or plug-
   ins that meet the processors requirements for trustworthiness of the

8.  IANA Considerations

   This document updates the registration of 'application/pdf', a media
   type registration as defined in Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions
   (MIME) Part Four: Registration Procedures [12]:

   MIME media type name: application

   MIME subtype name: pdf

   Required parameters: none

   Optional parameter: none

   Encoding considerations:
      PDF files frequently contain binary data, and thus must be encoded
      in non-binary contexts.

   Security considerations:
      See Section 7 of this document.

   Interoperability considerations:
      See Section 6 of this document.

   Published specification:
      Adobe Systems Incorporated, "PDF Reference, Fourth Edition",
      Version 1.5, August 2003, <
      specifications.jsp>, as amended by errata <http://>.

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   Applications which use this media type:
      See Section 6 of this document.

   Additional information:

   Magic number(s):
      All PDF files start with the characters '%PDF-' using the PDF
      version number, e.g., '%PDF-1.4'.  These characters are in US-
      ASCII encoding.

   File extension(s): .pdf

   Macintosh File Type Code(s): "PDF "

   For further information:
      Adobe Developer Support <>
      Adobe Systems Incorporated
      345 Park Ave
      San Jose, CA 95110

   Intended usage: COMMON

   Author/Change controller:
      Adobe Developer Support <>
      Adobe Systems Incorporated
      345 Park Ave
      San Jose, CA 95110

9.  References

9.1.  Normative References

   [1]   Adobe Systems Incorporated, "Portable Document Format Reference
         Manual", Version 1.0, ISBN: 0-201-62628-4,  Addison-Wesley, New
         York NY, 1993.

   [2]   Adobe Systems Incorporated, "PDF Reference, Second Edition",
         Version 1.3, ISBN: 0-201-61588-6,  Addison-Wesley, New York NY,

   [3]   Adobe Systems Incorporated, "PDF Reference, Third Edition",
         Version 1.4, ISBN: 0-201-75839-3,  Addison-Wesley, New York NY,
         November 2001.

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   [4]   Adobe Systems Incorporated, "PDF Reference, Fourth Edition",
         Version 1.5, August 2003, <

   [5]   Adobe Systems Incorporated, "Errata for PDF Reference, Fourth
         Edition", December 2003, <

   [6]   Berners-Lee, T., Fielding, R. and L. Masinter, "Uniform
         Resource Identifiers (URI): Generic Syntax", RFC 2396, August

   [7]   Adobe Systems Incorporated, "PDF Open Parameters", Technical
         Note 5428, May 2003, <

   [8]   Rivest, R., "RC4 - an unpublished, trade secret encryption
         algorithm", November 1993, <

   [9]   Kaliski, B., "PKCS #7: Cryptographic Message Syntax Version
         1.5", RFC 2315, March 1998.

   [10]  Adobe Systems Incorporated, "Acrobat JavaScript Scripting
         Reference", Technical Note 5431, September 2003, <http://>.

   [11]  Jonsson, J. and B. Kaliski, "Public-Key Cryptography Standards
         (PKCS) #1: RSA Cryptography Specifications Version 2.1", RFC
         3447, February 2003.

9.2.  Informative References

   [12]  Freed, N., Klensin, J. and J. Postel, "Multipurpose Internet
         Mail Extensions (MIME) Part Four: Registration Procedures", BCP
         13, RFC 2048, November 1996.

   [13]  Klyne, G., Iwazaki, R. and D. Crocker, "Content Negotiation for
         Messaging Services based on Email", RFC 3297, July 2002.

   [14]  Fielding, R., Gettys, J., Mogul, J., Frystyk, H., Masinter, L.,
         Leach, P. and T. Berners-Lee, "Hypertext Transfer Protocol --
         HTTP/1.1", RFC 2616, June 1999.

   [15]  Palme, J., "Making Postscript and PDF International", RFC 2346,
         May 1998.

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   [16]  International Standards Organization, "Graphic technology --
         Prepress digital data exchange -- Use of PDF -- Part 1:
         Complete exchange using CMYK data (PDF/X-1 and PDF/X-1a)", ISO
         15930-1:2001, November 2002.

   [17]  Association for Information and Image Management, "PDF-Archive
         Committee home page", December 2003,

   [18]  Planet PDF, "Planet PDF Tools List", December 2003, <http://>.

   [19], "PDF software from the PDF zone toolbox",
         December 2003, <>.

   [20]  Adobe Systems Incorporated, "Adobe products page", December
         2003, <>.

   [21]  Apple Computer, Inc., "Apple Mac OS X Features - Preview",
         December 2003, <>.

   [22]  Artifex Software, Inc, "Ghostscript", December 2003, <http://>.

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10.  Authors' Addresses

   Edward A. Taft
   Adobe Systems
   345 Park Ave
   San Jose, CA  95110


   James D. Pravetz
   Adobe Systems
   345 Park Ave
   San Jose, CA  95110


   Stephen Zilles
   Adobe Systems
   345 Park Ave
   San Jose, CA  95110

   Phone: +1 408 536 7692

   Larry Masinter
   Adobe Systems
   345 Park Ave
   San Jose, CA  95110

   Phone: +1 408 536 3024

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11.  Full Copyright Statement

   Copyright (C) The Internet Society (2004).  This document is subject
   to the rights, licenses and restrictions contained in BCP 78, and
   except as set forth therein, the authors retain all their rights.

   This document and the information contained herein are provided on an

Intellectual Property

   The IETF takes no position regarding the validity or scope of any
   Intellectual Property Rights or other rights that might be claimed to
   pertain to the implementation or use of the technology described in
   this document or the extent to which any license under such rights
   might or might not be available; nor does it represent that it has
   made any independent effort to identify any such rights.  Information
   on the procedures with respect to rights in RFC documents can be
   found in BCP 78 and BCP 79.

   Copies of IPR disclosures made to the IETF Secretariat and any
   assurances of licenses to be made available, or the result of an
   attempt made to obtain a general license or permission for the use of
   such proprietary rights by implementers or users of this
   specification can be obtained from the IETF on-line IPR repository at

   The IETF invites any interested party to bring to its attention any
   copyrights, patents or patent applications, or other proprietary
   rights that may cover technology that may be required to implement
   this standard.  Please address the information to the IETF at ietf-


   Funding for the RFC Editor function is currently provided by the
   Internet Society.

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