Create fill-in PDF forms to save & email

I want to use OpenOffice.org to produce some forms for students to fill in and email to their instructors. I want these forms to be in PDF so students can use Adobe Reader (or any other PDF viewer with form-filling capability, if there are any, or any browser equipped with the Adobe Reader plug-in) to fill them in.

Unfortunately, I cannot do that using OOo alone: filled-in PDF forms created by OOo cannot be saved or emailed. (The filled-in data can be dealt with in other ways, not appropriate for this situation.) I did find an easy way to do it, using Adobe Acrobat Standard or Adobe Acrobat Pro. Although I dislike the necessity to use Acrobat, I am doing so for this project. Here is the method I used:

  1. Create the form in OOo Writer. (Refer to Chapter 15, Using Forms, in the Writer Guide.) See Tip below for an easy way to create space for someone to type in answers.
  2. Export the file to PDF. On the General tab of the PDF Options dialog, be sure to select the option for Create PDF form and set the Submit format to PDF.
  3. Open the PDF in Adobe Acrobat. Choose Forms > Run Form Field Recognition from the menu bar. If you had text fields in the form, the left-hand section of the results should be a Recognition Report. Scroll to the bottom of this section and click on To fix this text field…. (Picture below shows what it looked like after clicking on that link.) This enables typing in the spaces created using the tip at the end of this post.
  4. Creating text fields in PDF form

  5. Save the file under another name if you wish.
  6. Choose Advanced > Enable Usage Rights in Adobe Reader from the menu bar. This is necessary for people to be able to save and email the PDF with the filled-in data.
  7. Save the file.

Tip: If you want to have a space for someone to type in a short answer, you don’t need to create a text box form control. I used the underscore key (Shift+hyphen) to create an underscored space of appropriate length, which Acrobat converted into a type-in field. This also worked when I defined a right-aligned tab with the underscore as the fill-in character. Saved a lot of typing; once the tab was defined, all I needed to do was press the Tab key once to get a whole line of underscores.

However, if you want a multiple-line area for lengthy typing and text wrap at the end of lines, you will need to use a text box form control.

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Posted in Forms, Instructions, PDF
23 comments on “Create fill-in PDF forms to save & email
  1. Aldi says:

    Thank you very much for this post. Is there a way to do this without Adobe Acrobat? I.e. on Linux with open source software?

    Thanks
    Aldi

  2. admin says:

    I am also a Linux user, and I prefer to use open source software whenever possible, but I have not found a way to do this without Acrobat, especially the step that makes the fill-in form able to be saved. If someone can tell me about other software that will do this, I would very much appreciate it. –Jean

  3. Cary says:

    You can create PDF forms for free (on any operating system with a browser) at http://www.pdfescape.com

    Should meet your PDF form creation needs most of the time.

  4. James says:

    I’ve got access to a copy of Acrobat Standard 8. I’m not seeing the options “Run form field recognition” or “Enable usage rights in Adobe Reader”. Should I assume that version 8 is too old to have these features or is there perhaps a configuration issue that’s preventing me from seeing them?

  5. admin says:

    I think those functions may be only in the Pro version, not Standard. I have Acrobat 8 Pro.

  6. dardhal says:

    Unfortunately, tried to create PDF forms from OpenOffice which could be filled AND saved modified from Adobe Acrobat Reader, and after much investigation and some frustration, I had to surrender. I even opened a bug to OpenOffice issue tracker, and the response I got from the developers was quite disappointing. See the gory details at http://www.openoffice.org/issues/show_bug.cgi?id=73696

    To make a long story short, it seems the ability for Reader to be able to save modified PDF forms (whatever program they are created with) depends on some obscure, undocumented, non-standard PDF format flags or the like, which only Adobe seems to know, and without their presence on the PDF file Reader simply rejects to save forms with fields filled in. From the link above one can think that the changes needed for OpenOffice to be able to create modifiable PDF forms were not that complex, and the outcome could be a great boost to PDF form usage and creation with only free software. Sad enough, the developers didn’t think so, and closed the issue as a WONTFIX.

    If samba developers had opted for the same way of reasoning, at the first sign of a non well documented or not fully standard issue, samba implementation would have come to a stop. We all agree obscure vendor modifications of standards are evil, and shouldn’t exist, but a somewhat easy to do change could have enabled us to be free of an expensive and completely closed source program from Adobe. But now, anyone wanting to create fillable forms that can be saved modified have to spend big bucks and resort to closed source. That completely prevents wide adoption of PDF fillable forms in the open source world, except on those places where filled fields are directly sent to the Internet from inside the document.

    I think I will never regret enough of not having time and knowledge to have been able to implement this feature. Oh, and being able to make it land the OpenOffice codebase, that seems to be another difficult thing to achieve.

    Rant ended, excuse me, but I spent dozens of hours with this issue time ago, and it seems three years later nothing changed for the better. It’s frustrating 🙁

  7. Luis Vasquez says:

    Medellin, may 11

    You can fill & save forms craeted with OOo and saved as Pdf files, using FoxIt (http://www.foxitsoftware.com/pdf/reader/) .

    Best regards

    Levarcol

  8. admin says:

    That program is Windows only. No use to me, nor to many of the people I work with.

  9. glb says:

    I have the same issue, most of users have acrobat reader, and they cannot save modified forms.
    Tried many others tools: no way to get out.
    Has anyone a solution?

  10. chima ijeoma says:

    The link to this article may be of use to some – I have used Scribus in the past and found it a solid product (best of all free and available to both Linux and Windows users!)

    http://wiki.scribus.net/index.php/How_to_create_an_e-Mail_PDF_Survey_Form

  11. SK says:

    Thanks so much for the tip on how to make the form saveable.

  12. DK says:

    Just a quick response to the author of this article. Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge. And now a comment for dardhal – I am as an open source coder increasingly annoyed by people like you. We code and do the work for free and try to give an Open Source product that is developed by people doing it mostly for free. Ranting and raving like you did is ok if you paid for the product. However, doing this to the open source coders like me is right out rude and offensive. I suggest you display better manners next time when you can’t get something in an open source program to work and not offend all of those who have given their time so freely. Of course an other alternative for you might be to get your hands dirty and start helping with the code.

  13. Juan P. says:

    I think that DK is right. Cases such as this can cause open-source programmers to abandon many projects.

  14. Jupis says:

    In Ubuntu 10.04 with OpenOffice you can create fillable PDF forms and fill the forms with Evince/Document viewer and save the file under new name with all filled date.

  15. Jean says:

    I haven’t had any luck with this, but I’ll try it again. Could be I missed something.

  16. NannyOgg says:

    Thank you for the article! Saved me from digging through Adobe help files.

    As for Open Source coders getting offended at people who ask for a somewhat reasonable (at least in my mind) feature that would lead to a wider use of that same Open Source product – this is rather disappointing. If the higher goal of people who work on Open Source is to work on Open Source and be very very proud of this fact – then, by all means, this reaction is quite appropriate. If, on the other hand, the program is supposed to fulfill actual needs of mere mortals – listening to requests from the very people who are using the product might have some merit after all.

  17. Azureus says:

    Stop complaining about Open Office, the problem is not with Open Office but with Adobe Acrobat Reader.
    As said their reader only wants to fill out forms that are create with their own products, thus introducing an obscure non-standard flag. they did this deliberately so big change that they will just change the flag when it would ever be implemented in other programs.
    furthermore, this flag is not in the pdf standard so it is normal that Open Office does not implement it. standards are there for a reason, no need for every software company to produce software that “kind of” follows the standard and make all other companies trying to keep up with what they are doing.

    you can perfectly make pdf-forms with open office that can be filled out en saved by users using any other pdf-reader (FoxIt, Evince, Occular, …)

  18. Luiz says:

    Instead of getting frustrated just print the form (once filled out) as a pdf using one of the open-source pdf converter such as CutePDF, so on. What open-source coders do is amazing and I give all many thanks for their time and effort.

  19. emmi says:

    When I take a pdf form created in libreoffice and get it all the way I want (and it works to save it everywhere but reader) then I go to acrobat pro 9 and extend the rights, the file is damaged. All the letters turn into blocks and symbols. Any ideas anyone of how to avoid that? I SO much prefer libreoffice’s editing of forms.

  20. Rad says:

    To create a fillable PDF Form you will need LibreOffice. MS Office doesn’t support PDF export. You can get the LibreOffice suite from http://www.libreoffice.org/

    Start LibreOffice Writer. To insert Form controls and fields go on View -> Toolbars -> Form Controls .This will show you a toolbar with plenty of useful form stuff such as Labels, Text Boxes, Check Boxes, etc… In this toolbar you will also find another useful button, More Controls which allows you to insert even more controls. Add form controls to your page. Intresting are the “Control…” and “Data…” entries which allow you to set advanced properties of your newly creted object.

    Once you have created your form it’s time to create the PDF file. You can click on the “Export directly as PDF” button directly from LibreOffice’s standard bar or either go on File->Export as PDF and select some more advanced options. You will have to check “Create PDF form” and “Submit form” set to PDF, end hit “Export” button.
    There you are! Now you have your PDF Form. You can fill it and print it out.

    Adobe Acrobat Reader does not allow to save filled-in form but you can use alternative viewers, eg, http://projects.gnome.org/evince/. With the Document Viewer you can fill the form in and save it with the filled values.

  21. RjBradlow says:

    I see that many people are under the wrong impression with regards to being able to save pdf forms with data via Adobe Reader -or- Any pdf Reader.
    Fact is that you Can save forms with data IF the creator of the form allows it.
    How to do this is usually overlooked or not enabled on purpose.

    I use Linux, Mac & WinBlows too, and I know you want to do this with OsS but I have to correct a misconception here.
    Using Adobe Acrobat Pro on either of the latter proprietary OS’…

    1. Finish creating your document
    2. Open it in Acrobat Pro 8 (I don’t know if it is in Acrobat 8… I have pro.)
    3. Run ‘Form Field Recognition’ from the ‘Forms’ menu (Make your form anyway you want – Auto or Manually.)
    3. When you are finished and BEFORE you goof the form up with security features go to the ‘Advanced’ menu.
    4. Select: ‘ Enable Usage Rights in Adobe Reader… ‘
    That will enable security features and Give you the Option to Allow users to Save Data with the form.

    *A Note about AAPro 8 on Macs: It’s a 32-bit… SLOW-azz-Beachball Making-DOG on SnowLeopard and up.
    Adobe’s wares are as inferior as Microsoft’s crap, but when the whole world is using this junk… what can we do?

    Yes, I wish more people would contribute to OSS so we can denounce the kings of crap and proclaim from the rooftops that our OSS revolution is ready for prime-time. (It’s almost ready, thanks to centos, gnu, Fedora & ubuntu / FSF, and the rest.)
    I’m an aspiring programmer and I’d love to get my hands dirty contributing to the cause, but I am way behind the 8-ball & wet behind the ears to be of any use yet.

    Best to you all.

  22. Jean says:

    I mentioned the Acrobat Pro option in my original post on this topic as being an unacceptable solution because of the cost, among other things.

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