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One reason I switched to Xelatex was that I was interested in being able to create fully unicode documents (I'm a linguist, and often have linguistic symbols as well as Arabic text in my documents) that could be cut and pasted (for example, if I need to change the document to a word file for a journal, or if I want to cut and paste part of a paper into another paper). One problem I have is that ligatures often do not transfer well, and in general I'd prefer to be able to cut and paste the individual characters (the underlying text).

Simply removing all of the commands from the original text file isn't an option either, as I often use Arabxetex for transliterating Arabic.

Is there some way to instruct Xelatex to create a PDF that displays the ligatures, but when someone selects the text to cut and paste, they select a non-ligatured underlying text? I know this is possible with PDFs that have been OCRed, i.e. to have an image of the text overlying an actual text.

Failing this, is it possible to disable ligatures?

(Crossposted with comp.text.tex)

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For disabling ligatures, see this question. – lockstep Jul 23 '11 at 11:41
On my system the ligatures fi ff ffl ffi copies fine with SumatraPDF and PDF-XChange Viewer, but not with Adobe Reader X and Foxit Reader. – Martin Heller Oct 5 '11 at 14:58
The term "plain text" in the title got me a little confused. To cite Joel on Software from The Absolute Minimum Every Software Developer Absolutely, Positively Must Know About Unicode and Character Sets: "There Ain't No Such Thing As Plain Text." – Martin Scharrer Oct 23 '11 at 19:06
Any well thought font should result in copyable ligatures in PDF, so either the font or the PDF viewer are not doing their job well. – Khaled Hosny Dec 29 '11 at 13:54
Relevant: tex.stackexchange.com/questions/33476/… – Andreas Dec 12 '12 at 21:56

I think the accepted answer to Is it possible to provide alternative text to use when copying text from the PDF? suggests that the accsup package will do it. You will either no longer be able to type in ligatures directly, or have to make your ligatures active characters.

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