I have a few hundred pages of highly annotated PDF file, which is mostly text, in the form of underlines, highlights, and (more) text annotations.

After two years, a updated version of that document came out, with some revisions to the text.

Question: Is there a way for me to export my annotations from the old version of the PDF and import it to the new one?

(And if anyone has an idea, how are annotations stored anyway in PDFs at the file-structure level? Can it be exported? I'm on Linux by the way and am comfortable with advanced command line tools if need be.)


The problem is that you are on Linux.

The standard way would be opening the document in Acrobat (or a newer Reader (XI or newer)), export the comments, and reimport them in the new document.

HOWEVER, the positions of the annotations will be the same, and, depending on the kind of annotations, you will have some heavy shuffling around of the annotations. This will give you a great opportunity to thoroughly read the document.

Note that the last paragraph will be valid for any solution you follow, because the annotations are NOT linked to the underlying text; they are all specified via their position on the page.

  • So Adobe Reader XI can do that? No problem with Windows, I'm running one in a VM. I'll try this and get back to you. Thanks. – Majal May 5 '16 at 7:55
  • Correct (unitl I am misled, but then I will test it myself)… Reader XI or DC should be able to export the comments without having the document enabled with Extended Rights. The resulting file will be an FDF file. – Max Wyss May 5 '16 at 10:23
  • Tried it. Well, somehow it worked, but not very satisfying. It removed formatting (colors, font face, font size, etc) and applied Adobe's default. The only change in the file was in some wordings but positioning of 99.9% of text remained the same. Yet the highlights and underlines went so much off course... Hmm... I'll try to find other solutions. Thanks for the time tough. (And Adobe Reader crawls by the way when number of annotations = 2,251) ;-) – Majal May 5 '16 at 12:09
  • There may be another approach, but you'd have to estimate whether it is worth for you, and it would require Acrobat. You could create a JavaScript which loops through the annotations of the source document, reads out the properties, and recreates it in the new document. I have done such stuff in the past, but even then, it would require some additional development. For a quote, feel free to contact me in private. – Max Wyss May 5 '16 at 18:42

Scouring the internet, the difficulty lies in not having a uniform format standard for annotations in PDF files, and so far Adobe has supported FDF/XFDF export/import. Other PDF readers have their own ways of tackling annotations.

So, as of this moment, we're stuck to FDF/XFDF. Adobe XI/DC delivers that with some loss of formatting. Yet if there are other alternatives, PDF-XChange Viewer (or it's newer cousin, the PDF-XChange Editor) works with exactly the same limitations. But they have a real upside: They don't slow down at all even at 2k+ annotations, which is so unlike Adobe Reader.

Both by the way run seamlessly with WINE on Linux (as Adobe Reader also does).

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