This chapter describes how QPDF and QPDFWriter implement creation and processing of linearized PDFS.

Basic Strategy for Linearization

To avoid the incestuous problem of having the qpdf library validate its own linearized files, we have a special linearized file checking mode which can be invoked via qpdf --check-linearization (or qpdf --check). This mode reads the linearization parameter dictionary and the hint streams and validates that object ordering, parameters, and hint stream contents are correct. The validation code was first tested against linearized files created by external tools (Acrobat and pdlin) and then used to validate files created by QPDFWriter itself.

Preparing For Linearization

Before creating a linearized PDF file from any other PDF file, the PDF file must be altered such that all page attributes are propagated down to the page level (and not inherited from parents in the /Pages tree). We also have to know which objects refer to which other objects, being concerned with page boundaries and a few other cases. We refer to this part of preparing the PDF file as optimization, discussed in Optimization. Note the, in this context, the term optimization is a qpdf term, and the term linearization is a term from the PDF specification. Do not be confused by the fact that many applications refer to linearization as optimization or web optimization.

When creating linearized PDF files from optimized PDF files, there are really only a few issues that need to be dealt with:

  • Creation of hints tables

  • Placing objects in the correct order

  • Filling in offsets and byte sizes


In order to perform various operations such as linearization and splitting files into pages, it is necessary to know which objects are referenced by which pages, page thumbnails, and root and trailer dictionary keys. It is also necessary to ensure that all page-level attributes appear directly at the page level and are not inherited from parents in the pages tree.

We refer to the process of enforcing these constraints as optimization. As mentioned above, note that some applications refer to linearization as optimization. Although this optimization was initially motivated by the need to create linearized files, we are using these terms separately.

PDF file optimization is implemented in the source file. That file is richly commented and serves as the primary reference for the optimization process.

After optimization has been completed, the private member variables obj_user_to_objects and object_to_obj_users in QPDF have been populated. Any object that has more than one value in the object_to_obj_users table is shared. Any object that has exactly one value in the object_to_obj_users table is private. To find all the private objects in a page or a trailer or root dictionary key, one merely has make this determination for each element in the obj_user_to_objects table for the given page or key.

Note that pages and thumbnails have different object user types, so the above test on a page will not include objects referenced by the page’s thumbnail dictionary and nothing else.

Writing Linearized Files

We will create files with only primary hint streams. We will never write overflow hint streams. (As of PDF version 1.4, Acrobat doesn’t either, and they are never necessary.) The hint streams contain offset information to objects that point to where they would be if the hint stream were not present. This means that we have to calculate all object positions before we can generate and write the hint table. This means that we have to generate the file in two passes. To make this reliable, QPDFWriter in linearization mode invokes exactly the same code twice to write the file to a pipeline.

In the first pass, the target pipeline is a count pipeline chained to a discard pipeline. The count pipeline simply passes its data through to the next pipeline in the chain but can return the number of bytes passed through it at any intermediate point. The discard pipeline is an end of line pipeline that just throws its data away. The hint stream is not written and dummy values with adequate padding are stored in the first cross reference table, linearization parameter dictionary, and /Prev key of the first trailer dictionary. All the offset, length, object renumbering information, and anything else we need for the second pass is stored.

At the end of the first pass, this information is passed to the QPDF class which constructs a compressed hint stream in a memory buffer and returns it. QPDFWriter uses this information to write a complete hint stream object into a memory buffer. At this point, the length of the hint stream is known.

In the second pass, the end of the pipeline chain is a regular file instead of a discard pipeline, and we have known values for all the offsets and lengths that we didn’t have in the first pass. We have to adjust offsets that appear after the start of the hint stream by the length of the hint stream, which is known. Anything that is of variable length is padded, with the padding code surrounding any writing code that differs in the two passes. This ensures that changes to the way things are represented never results in offsets that were gathered during the first pass becoming incorrect for the second pass.

Using this strategy, we can write linearized files to a non-seekable output stream with only a single pass to disk or wherever the output is going.

Calculating Linearization Data

Once a file is optimized, we have information about which objects access which other objects. We can then process these tables to decide which part (as described in “Linearized PDF Document Structure” in the PDF specification) each object is contained within. This tells us the exact order in which objects are written. The QPDFWriter class asks for this information and enqueues objects for writing in the proper order. It also turns on a check that causes an exception to be thrown if an object is encountered that has not already been queued. (This could happen only if there were a bug in the traversal code used to calculate the linearization data.)

Known Issues with Linearization

There are a handful of known issues with this linearization code. These issues do not appear to impact the behavior of linearized files which still work as intended: it is possible for a web browser to begin to display them before they are fully downloaded. In fact, it seems that various other programs that create linearized files have many of these same issues. These items make reference to terminology used in the linearization appendix of the PDF specification.

  • Thread Dictionary information keys appear in part 4 with the rest of Threads instead of in part 9. Objects in part 9 are not grouped together functionally.

  • We are not calculating numerators for shared object positions within content streams or interleaving them within content streams.

  • We generate only page offset, shared object, and outline hint tables. It would be relatively easy to add some additional tables. We gather most of the information needed to create thumbnail hint tables. There are comments in the code about this.

Debugging Note

The qpdf --show-linearization command can show the complete contents of linearization hint streams. To look at the raw data, you can extract the filtered contents of the linearization hint tables using qpdf --show-object=n --filtered-stream-data. Then, to convert this into a bit stream (since linearization tables are bit streams written without regard to byte boundaries), you can pipe the resulting data through the following perl code:

use bytes;
binmode STDIN;
undef $/;
my $a = <STDIN>;
my @ch = split(//, $a);
map { printf("%08b", ord($_)) } @ch;
print "\n";