WWF Format: DRM For the Environment


The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) recently introduced a document format that it hopes will help cut down on the amount of paper wasted on printing documents needlessly.

Known as WWF format, it is essentially a PDF with the print function disabled. The idea being that, if someone decides a document their sending doesn’t have a reason to be printed, they can simply send it as a WWF format and the recipient will not be able to do so, or at least have serious obstacles to prevent them doing so.

This makes WWF format something of a DRM, but rather than trying to protect content within the file, is trying to save the environment.

I decided to download and test the WWF software provided and see how well it works and if content creators might have any reason to distribute content in WWF format.

Unfortunately, what I found wasn’t very good and, quite frankly, I can’t see the format taking off anytime soon.

How it Works

(Note: I used the Mac version of the software for this test and have not tested the Windows version)

Anyone who has used a PDF printer before will, most likely, already be familiar with the basics of how WWF format works. Basically you download and install the relevant software and the application creates a WWF “printer” that generates WWF from any document capable of being printed.

To access it on the Mac, just got to your print command and click “Save As PDF”, on the drop down select “Save as WWF” and then enter the filename when prompted. The file will be “printed” to a WWF file and a page explaining WWF format will be appended to the end of the file. I’ve created a sample WWF file using the cease and desist letter found in the Stock Letters section.

The file can be opened in almost any application that can view PDF files, on my machine it opened up in Skim, and, just as promised, the print function is disabled, as is visible in the image above.

All in all, there isn’t much to say about it, the software works reasonably well and it does what it says it will do. Unfortunately though, the strategy behind the WWF file format is a flawed one and not likely to succeed. The reasons, however, should be familiar to anyone who has followed DRM in the news.

The Problems with WWF

The problems with WWF as a format are legion. Here are just some of the larger, more obvious ones to consider:

  1. It’s DRM: Though I’m sure the WWF doesn’t think of its new format as DRM, that’s what it is, a means of preventing users from doing something with digital content. History has shown that, if there is enough interest, it will be broken. In fact, it can be broken very easily as you will read below.
  2. It Duplicates Functionality: One can already disable printing on a regular PDF file if motivated. However, as per the first point, that’s also been broken as well.
  3. Lack of Recognition: As noble as the efforts are, as a new format WWF doesn’t have a lot of people using it. In fact, very few know what it is or how to create/open such a file. That may change over time, but given that it’s just a PDF without printing and PDF is a virtually universal format, it doesn’t seem there is much reason to change.
  4. Alters the File: WWF adds an extra page to every document it creates, adding to file size, breaking design and creating confusion.
  5. Limited Format: In addition to its design limitation of not being able to print, WWF has other limitations compared to PDF, including a lack of document signing, password protection and other features. Though they may not be limitations for most files, for those who are hardcore users of PDF, WWF is not an option.
  6. Poor Documentation: The Save As WWF site is very scant on documentation, especially on the Mac version. It took me several tries before I realized that the “Save as WWF” function was under the “Save as PDF” dropdown. It was not installed as a traditional printer and the actual “Save as WWF” application does virtually nothing.

The bigger problem, however, is that the function of blocking printing simply doesn’t work well. It is, at most, a speedbump in preventing people from printing the document.

For example, on my Mac, all I had to do was export the WWF file as a regular PDF and then print the PDF. The entire process took less than fifteen seconds and required no real effort or expertise on my part, I just tried it to see what would happen.

In short, as noble as the cause of reducing needless printing is, this method isn’t likely do much. As it is right now, it’s just a poorly-documented, poorly-executed and ineffective DRM scheme that’s a bad replacement for PDF. Even if you are desperate to prevent others from printing your ebook, diagram or other files, this just isn’t the way to go about it.

Bottom Line

The reality is this, the same amount of paper can be saved by sending PDFs and just not printing them. Even if you don’t disable the print function, if the recipient doesn’t print it, then no paper is used.

From the WWF’s perspective, the best approach for saving paper is probably going to be education and discouraging printing in general, not trying to introduce yet another file type into the mix.

Likewise, content creators hoping that the WWF format will help protect their work, or at least prevent printing, will be very sorely disappointed.

Simply put, DRM doesn’t change human behavior, whether it’s for copyright or for the environment. While the WWF format may be good for some publicity and some public interest, it isn’t likely going to have a major impact.

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  1. But even more important is to take into account the energetic cost of having content available only in electronic ways. Sometimes having a paper copy is mores sustainable in terms of energy consumption than anything else.

    • Depending on the purpose and nature of use (and the fact paper is a renewable resource), that's very true. I didn't want to talk too much about the actual environmentalism behind it, but I agree that there's a lot of tough questions about the actual benefit of this system, especially trying to make it so broadly used.