For publishers, the Internet is both a potential friend and a feared nemesis. Lacking a means to protect and sell their wares, most publishers have yet to take advantage of Web distribution.

Addressing a key fear, Adobe Systems has worked with partners in technology and publishing to develop a secure content-distribution and commerce system around its PDF file format.

Yesterday at the Seybold Seminars conference in San Francisco, Adobe announced the prerelease availability of Adobe PDF Merchant and Acrobat Reader with Web Buy, a feature within Acrobat Reader, to its partners. A commerce mechanism for valuable intellectual content, the PDF Merchant works on the server side while the Web Buy plug-in works on the client side.

Available for a small transaction fee negotiated with the acquisition of the server license, the PDF Merchant software puts a lock on posted PDF documents. If you try to open such a file with Acrobat Reader, you'll see a message saying you do not have rights to the content, and asking whether you would like to purchase them.

When you click on the purchase license, PDF Merchant takes you directly to the purchase page on the publisher or distributor's Web site. You fill in your credit card information as you would at any e-commerce site. In two flashes on the screen, the site works with Acrobat Reader to send the license and the content to the hard disk or network drive on your system, identified automatically by the Web Buy plug-in.

Even after you buy a document, you cannot send the file to someone else.

"If you send the file to a friend, it'll say he doesn't have the rights and he'll be asked to purchase them," says John Warnock, Adobe's cochair and chief executive officer. "You can lend a friend your Zip disk with your book, but you can't copy it."

Other than claiming "soon," Adobe is ambiguous as to when the new Acrobat Reader with Web Buy will be available for download. The PDF Merchant software will be available to buy directly in mid-September. Currently for purchase on the Adobe Web site are two books from Adobe Press and three from Octavo.

For content, transaction processing, reporting, and dedicated devices, Adobe has partnered with Barnes & Noble, Everybook, Fatbrain.com, 1stBooks, GlassBook, Iomega, Octavo, Pearson, R.R. Donnelly & Sons, Salon.com, Seybold Publications, Simon & Schuster, and Xerox.

With the PDF Merchant and new Acrobat Reader, Adobe aims to ready digital content for e-commerce by "protecting the rights of the publisher while enabling consumer access," says Chuck Geschke, Adobe's co-chair and president.

Looking forward, the company plans to port and make the technology available to portable devices, namely electronic books.