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A hard copy is a print version of a digital document. While some may refer to read-only documents such as PDFs as hard copies of a word processor file, the common convention for hard copy is that the document is on paper.
IT professionals and others refer to print documents as hard copy because they cannot be easily edited or manipulated as they can be in most digital environments. For example, Microsoft Word documents are "soft copies" because it is easy for users to simply open up the file and amend it or change it. By contrast, hard copies in print are seen as finished versions that are "set in stone."
Today, individuals and groups use hard copies for a number of reasons. In some cases, there is the idea that hard copies can act as a backup for digital documents that may be lost or destroyed. In other cases, hard copies are simply easier to keep track of, easier to transport, or easier to distribute. There are also instances where hard copies are used as schemas or templates that are marked up with pen or pencil.
The phrase hard copy also relates to the comprehensive struggle between digital and print media. As digital media emerges, this dichotomy is very prevalent in today's business world and in modern societies where individual readers choose their preferred format. For example, the rise of digital e-books is leading to big questions about the future of printed books and other print media.