Batch Convert PDF to PDF/A – 2018 Edition

This is a major revision of an article that I wrote in 2013. I’m developing a paperless workflow for my home and office. I want to save all my documents in PDF/A-1b PDF/A-2b archival format so I will be able to open them for years to come. The PDFs should be searchable, meaning they contain not only images of documents, but strings of text. This allows the documents to be indexed so I can quickly find documents when I type in Windows Explorer’s search box.

Note The 2013 approach created PDF/A-1b files, which do not support transparency. Increasingly, files that I receive include transparent fonts; when these were converted to PDF/A-1b, the fonts were rasterized, the files were no longer searchable, and the the files were very large. PDF/A-2b, with its support for transparency, solves all that.

There are basically three types of documents that need to be archived:

  • Paper documents. These must be scanned and, in order for them to be searchable, have Optical Character Recognition (OCR) applied. I’ve found OmniPage 18 Standard to be pretty good at this.
  • Non-PDF electronic documents like emails, web pages, etc. These already have text; they just need to be converted to PDF/A. I’ve already blogged about using CutePDF to print these to PDF/A.
  • PDF documents. Once you opt out of paper statements, your bank, credit card company, telephone company, and utility will give you links to PDF files for download. Your tax software probably saved a PDF file too. You could re-print these to PDF/A using CutePDF, but I chose to write a batch file to quickly convert an existing PDF to PDF/A using Ghostscript. This batch process is the subject of this article.

Set up the Batch Components

Caveat This approach should create valid PDF/A documents, but even among experts, there is some disagreement about the PDF/A standard. Use this approach at your own risk. If you have Adobe Acrobat Professional, you can use its “pre-flight” validation to check the output. Or you may want to try a free online validator like the one at PDF-Tools.com. For more background on the process, see this this superuser article and this Ghostscript bug report. In brief testing with PDF/A-2b, I found that one of three test files failed validation, complaining about CMYK colorspace even though I specified RGB. Maybe the source document (an AT&T Internet bill) had some reference to CMYK.

The underlying technology for this batch file is the same as for the CutePDF process, so if you have already followed the other post, you can skip the identical steps.

1. Download the latest GNU Affero-licensed version of Ghostscript here (version 9.25 as of this writing). I found that the 32-bit version works fine even under 64-bit Windows 7. Install Ghostscript but customize the directory so it doesn’t change if you get a later version, I use C:\Program Files (x86)\gs\latest. At the end of the install, go ahead and let it Generate cidfmap for Windows CJK TrueType fonts.

Batch Convert PDFA 1

2. Create an empty folder on your C: drive called C:\GS_PDFA (Ghostscript PDF/A).

3. Go to Control Panel > System and Security > System. Click on Advanced system settings then Environment Variables. Under System variables, highlight Path, click Edit and add C:\GS_PDFA to the Path (shown here in Windows 10):

Batch Convert PDFA 4

Batch Convert PDFA 5

Batch Convert PDFA 6

4. Download

and unzip it into C:\GS_PDFA. This will give you four files:

  • pdfa.cmd – the batch file
  • PDFA_def.ps – the prefix file for Ghostscript conversion to PDF/A
  • PDF_ShowBookmarksPanel.ps – a Postscript instruction to tell a PDF reader to show the Bookmarks Panel when opening the document.
  • Release Notes.txt

Note that PDFA_def.sys is the same file described in the CutePDF post, so it’s okay to overwrite it.

Update May 28, 2019 In pdfa.cmd, removed unnecessary reference to PDFWrite.pdfa.rsp, which is only used for CutePDF conversions. See Release Notes.txt.

5. Locate the path to Ghostscript’s gswin32c.exe on your system. pdfa.cmd assumes it is in C:\Program Files (x86)\gs\latest\bin\. If it is somewhere else, update line 66 of pdfa.cmd to point to the correct path.

6. Download the Adobe ICC profiles here. An ICC profile describes a “color space.” We’ll use the simplest one, Adobe RGB (1998). From the downloaded zip archive, extract AdobeRGB1998.icc to the C:\GS_PDFA folder. Again, this is the same file used in the CutePDF post so it’s okay to overwrite it. (You can use a different profile, e.g. sRGB_IEC61966-2-1_no black_scaling.icc from www.color.org; you’ll need to modify PDFA_def.ps accordingly.)

That’s it! You’re now ready to convert PDF files to PDF/A.

Use the Batch File

Since the batch file is in your path, you should be able to open a command prompt anywhere on your system, type pdfa <filename>, and watch it convert the file to PDF/A. Some notes and advanced usage:

  • Do not type the .pdf extension on the input parameters. Just type the file name.
  • If the file name contains spaces, enclose it in quotation marks.
  • The batch program will rename the input file to .old.pdf and create the PDF/A as .pdf. You can delete the .old.pdf file(s) if you are satisfied with the new PDF/A document.
  • You can concatenate up to five input PDFs into one output PDF/A. Separate the input file names with spaces.
  • When conversion finishes, the PDF/A output file will open in the program on your computer that is registered for viewing PDF files (e.g. Adobe Reader).
  • To set the Initial View of the PDF to show the Bookmarks (outline) panel, set the last parameter to -sb (show bookmarks).  The input file must already contain bookmarks.  Bookmarks will not work properly when concatenating files because bookmarks copied from later files will point to incorrect page numbers.
  • Type pdfa by itself to see some usage notes.

Usage

pdfa file1 [file2^|-sb] [file3^|-sb] [file4^|-sb] [file5^|-sb]

Usage Examples

1. If you have a PDF utility bill, open a command prompt where the PDF file resides and use this command:

pdfa “Utility Bill”

Output

Utility Bill.pdf – the PDF/A document
Utility Bill.old.pdf – the original PDF document

2. If you have a credit card statement with two reconciliation reports to attach, use the following command:

pdfa CCstatement recon1 recon2

Output

CCstatement.pdf – the combined PDF/A document
CCstatement.old.pdf
recon1.old.pdf
recon2.old.pdf

3. If you have a tax return that includes bookmarks, use the following command:

pdfa “Tax Return” –sb

Output

Tax Return.pdf – the PDF/A document, should open with bookmarks panel in Adobe Reader
Tax Return.old.pdf

Add a File Explorer Context Menu

I use this so much that I needed a way to run the batch directly from File Explorer without having to open a command prompt. This turns out to be pretty simple to set up.

1. In File Explorer, go to %AppData%\Microsoft\Windows\SendTo.

Batch Convert PDFA 7

2. Add a shortcut to C:\GS_PDFA\pdfa.cmd. Name it “PDFA Batch File”. (While you’re here, you might want to remove Send To items that you’ll never use.)

3. Now, in File Explorer, Ctrl-click to select up to five PDF documents in the order in which you want to concatenate them. Right-click on the first one and choose Send to > PDFA Batch File:

Batch Convert PDFA 8

A command window will appear briefly as it converts the file(s), then the completed file will open in your default PDF viewer:

Batch Convert PDFA 9

Reference

A few notes for future reference:

Official document on creating PDF/A:
https://www.ghostscript.com/doc/current/Ps2pdf.htm#PDFA

Notes on parameters to use for creating PDF/A:
https://bugs.ghostscript.com/show_bug.cgi?id=699582#c2

Notes on why transparent fonts produce non-searchable PDFs:
https://bugs.ghostscript.com/show_bug.cgi?id=692773#c3

In general, the best way to see if a Ghostscript problem has been reported and solved is to search the bug tracker at https://bugs.ghostscript.com/query.cgi. Change the Status to All to see open and closed bugs. Then search for the string “PDFA” (no slash). You can sort the results by Change date to see the more recent issues.

13 thoughts on “Batch Convert PDF to PDF/A – 2018 Edition

  1. Dilip

    I am getting below error, Do you knoe why?

    ‘pdfa’ is not recognized as an internal or external command,
    operable program or batch file.

  2. Mark Berry Post author

    Dilip, it sounds like the pdfa.cmd file is not in your path. See step 3 about adding the folder where you created pdfa.cmd to your computer’s path. You can also test pdfa.cmd directly by opening a command prompt and navigating to the folder where pdfa.cmd is located.

  3. Mark Berry Post author

    Gusi – thanks for pointing that out. PDFWrite.pdfa.rsp is only needed by the CutePDF converter. I think I was trying to incorporate that into pdfa.cmd but it didn’t work. I’ve removed PDFWrite.pdfa.rsp from pdfa.cmd and uploaded a new version, PDFAbatch_1.4, now linked above.

  4. Marco

    Hi
    Thanks for the instruction. It works flawlessly. Just wanted to ask if it’s possible to change the output directory?

    Thanks

  5. Mark Berry Post author

    @Marco, changing the output directory is not a native feature of the script. From a quick glance, it looks like you could customize the “-o” (output) parameter where it runs gswin32c near the end of the script. You could try something like this:

    -o "C:\MyPDFs\%file1%.pdf" ^

  6. Oliver

    Hi Mark

    Great script, thank you very much! On my Windows 10 machine this works up to Version 9.26 of Ghostscript, with 9.27 the conversion fails returning the following error message

    Unrecoverable error: rangecheck in .putdeviceprops

    — Full output: —

    B:\fix_pdfs>pdfa P1_1_3_007_055
    ren “P1_1_3_007_055.pdf” “P1_1_3_007_055.old.pdf”
    GPL Ghostscript 9.27 (2019-04-04)
    Copyright (C) 2018 Artifex Software, Inc. All rights reserved.
    This software is supplied under the GNU AGPLv3 and comes with NO WARRANTY:
    see the file COPYING for details.
    Unrecoverable error: rangecheck in .putdeviceprops
    Die Datei “P1_1_3_007_055.pdf” kann nicht gefunden werden.

    B:\fix_pdfs>

    Regards,
    Oliver

  7. Oliver

    Thank you for your replies. I just tried and had no luck using it with GPL Ghostscript 9.50 (2019-10-15), whole file path as argument or no.

  8. Mark Berry Post author

    Hi Oliver – googling “rangecheck in .putdeviceprops”, I see it that has caused errors in the past, related to the -sOutputFile parameter. (I use the -o option which includes the output file specification https://www.ghostscript.com/doc/current/Use.htm#o_option.)

    I noticed you are using a less-common B: drive . Do you have a drive C: or higher to try it on? Sometimes these kinds of things come down to unforeseen scenarios that were not tested by developers.

    The next step would be to pull out the actual command from pdfa.cmd script (around line 235) and try it. If you can duplicate the error using gswin32c, you could raise a bug directly with GhostScript: https://bugs.ghostscript.com/.

  9. Robert K. Meyer

    I am now able to print a pdf/a-1b file with CutePDF using gs 9.25 with your scripts. Thank you very much. Can pdfa.cmd and the CutePDF scripts be modified for custom metadata such as: title, author, subject, keywords?

    I tried manually editing the metadata and fixing with pdfa.cmd to pass validation, but the file becomes unsearchable for text because xref is messed up.

  10. Mark Berry Post author

    @Robert – mucking with the metadata is beyond anything I’ve ever attempted, so I’m afraid I can’t advise you on that. Good luck!

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