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Files inside PDF

May 2024 by Peter Wyatt (PDF Association)

This article aims to explain the different ways by which PDF stores “files”.

What is meant by a “file” with PDF depends on your viewpoint, and may include notions and expectations derived from how HTML and other formats may do things, some of which differ from the metaphors used by PDF software.

Diverse interfaces foster various end-user understandings of what “files” exist inside any given PDF. This is especially true when we consider the many similar terms in use. Understandings differ or are ambiguous depending on the users’ background, and the terms themselves may have different technical meanings.

Accordingly, end users are sometimes perplexed as to why they cannot simply “download” the JPEG file of a photo in a PDF, or extract a font from PDF viewing software, yet they might be able to extract the embedded spreadsheet they’d attached.

If your role relates to digital preservation or file forensics then accurately understanding the kinds of data that can be in a PDF and how it is stored can be very important.

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