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After entering the Title for this question, I see numerous links to (perhaps) similar questions regarding Preview's failure to select or copy text from a PDF document. And so this question may do nothing more than document another malfunction.

My current system: The hardware is MacBook Pro (16-inch, 2019), my OS is macOS Catalina, ver 10.15.3, the software is Preview, Version 11.0 (999.4). My research turned up this not-so-helpful (at least in this case) document from Apple Support.

I need to copy and paste data from bank statements that are delivered in PDF. I've done this for years, across several versions of macOS (most recently Mojave), and it's always worked. Today, for the first time, I downloaded some PDFs from the bank on my current system. Unfortunately, it seems Preview can no longer be bothered:

Preview was unable to select (or copy) any data from any of the three PDFs I downloaded todayNote1. Here's what I did in an effort to isolate the problem:

  • On my current system: I opened all 3 documents in both Chrome and Firefox browsers using the File... Open... menu. I was able to select and copy any passages I chose in both browsers.

  • On my current system: I opened several PDFs that I downloaded and saved from older macOS systems (Mojave, High Sierra, etc). I was able to select and copy any passages I chose.

  • I fired up my Mojave system, and opened all 3 documents in Preview ver 10.1 (944.6.16.1); I was able to select and copy any passages I chose.

  • I finally called "Apple Care" (now an oxymoron) to get help. After a 45 minute wait, and a lengthy conversation with "first level" support, "second level" support was summoned. Without hesitation, "second level" said this: "Apple doesn't actually support PDF files with Preview. There is nothing we can do to help you."

I know others have experienced problems with Preview and PDF files, but does anyone have any idea (or cogent theories) re the cause or the cure for this? For example, is it possible to downgrade to an earlier version of Preview on Catalina?


Note 1: While the PDF was loaded in Preview, command A would select a few odd passages from the document - these were the bank's logo at the top of each page, and a long string that had no meaning to me - perhaps an internal document number?

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  • Does Acrobat Reader work better? – Tom Gewecke Mar 25 '20 at 13:13
  • @TomGewecke: I've not tried Acrobat Reader, but I'd guess that it does. I've only tested 4 apps: Preview-on-Catalina, Preview -on-Mojave, Firefox and Chrome. Preview-on-Catalina is the only one that misbehaves. – Seamus Mar 25 '20 at 19:08
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ICYI:

As it turns out, there is apparently an issue in Apple's Preview app. I took this issue up with another representative at AppleCare. Fortunately, this chap was not an arrogant idiot as the first one was.

I finally got some feedback on my case today. Here's a brief synopsis:

I received feedback from our engineers. They confirmed that there is an issue with the Preview feature in Catalina. They were able to reproduce the issue by testing it on Macs running both Mojave and Catalina and got the same result that you did. This is something that has been reported and will be addressed in a future software update.

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Giving the Apply guy the benefit of the doubt, there's likely a gap between what he meant and what he said and what was understood. Otherwise he's an idiot.

I can copy and paste text from PDFs that I have in Catalina; and Apple does indeed provide methods to select and copy text from PDFs in their frameworks for developers -- the same frameworks on which Preview is built.

PDFs can be curious creatures, in that they are essentially code that has to be interpreted. The same page can be coded in many different ways, and some types of coding might be 'misunderstood' by the rendering engine. It's possible that the PDF-generating tool your bank uses may be writing the data out in a way that MacOS doesn't like. (Windows-based, commercial frameworks designed to auto-generate PDFs from database output are not without issue.)

At this point, it's impossible to know who is obeying the standard and where the bug is. (I can accept that you're unwilling to provide example PDFs of your bank statements for scrutiny!) Though clearly, something has changed between Mojave and Catalina.

However, there have been issues of this sort several times throughout MacOS's history, and the usual fix is to 'rinse' the PDF through Apple's PDFKit by re-saving the PDF from Preview. You can try adding a harmless annotation somewhere to force a save.

When saving a PDF, MacOS has to rewrite the PDF using its own data structures, and the revised PDF can then sometimes be understood by Preview more easily.

If that doesn't work, it's always worth having a second PDF viewing app that doesn't use MacOS's PDFKit, just to get a second opinion on a PDF. As you have found out, you can use Chrome or FireFox to copy from the PDF. Acrobat Reader is of course the gold standard; there's also Foxit Reader.

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