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The IRS (Internal Revenue Service) 1099 form says

"The official printed version of Copy A of this IRS form is scannable, but the online version of it, printed from this website, is not. Do not print and file copy A downloaded from this website; a penalty may be imposed for filing with the IRS information return forms that can’t be scanned."

What does this mean?

  1. So, the options are to fill out the IRS online 1099 form using Adobe-Acrobat reader, and electronic file through "IRS (FIRE)"?

  2. So if we have the IRS mail us the official printed version of copy A, and then scan it and type on it using adobe-reader/apple's preview or type-write on it, then we can print and mail to the IRS and have no problems?

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    The reason for only accepting official printed forms is that they use automatic scanning for processing the forms. Small things like paper weight, reflectivity, print quality, alignment and scale can cause problems with the automatic scanning process.
    – jpa
    Jul 26 at 9:27
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    "ladobe-lacrobat" I know what product you mean, but what's with this? Jul 26 at 12:32
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    @DanIsFiddlingByFirelight Maybe they're French. Jul 27 at 1:19
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    I assume this is the reason: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-photo_blue (red is also sometimes used). It's a special shade that can be easily dropped from the scan, printed using a single ink of that particular shade (called "spot color" in offset printing) as opposed to a mixture of the four standard inks normally used for printing (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). Most of the forms I've ever encountered (outside the US) were printed in either red or blue such ink. However, I have no idea why that's necessary, since the input fields are usually just blank paper.
    – typo
    Jul 28 at 11:19

3 Answers 3

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The IRS will not accept any version of this form if you print it out on your own printer. Otherwise, why wouldn't they just provide you with a way to print it out?

They accept e-file or a professionally-printed form (scannable). See your local small-business store (Staples) for examples of these beautiful, scannable forms.

If you decide against e-file, you can handwrite or type on a scannable form. But be neat!

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    Or you can use a template and fill it on the computer and print it on the form, but you'll need to either build your own template or buy one from a 1099 preparation service (which then can efile it for you, if you want)
    – littleadv
    Jul 26 at 5:03
  • I don't think this is right because there are printable copies of almost all forms, and almost none of them have this verbage. While I don't actually know, on encountering this form I found it has several copies in the same document and copy A is in red while the others are in black and I think the red copy can't be scanned.
    – Joshua
    Jul 26 at 16:22
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Joshua's comment to another answer, "the red copy can't be scanned" is close, but actually it is the reverse! Historically, many IRS forms used red for the pre-printed information, with the user (employer, bank, taxpayer, etc.) typing, printing or hand-writing the actual information. This makes scanning by the IRS easier. (It has nothing to do with scanning forms into your own computer.)

The problem with printing the red page of the downloaded PDF is that most people don't have a color printer capable of doing so properly. Even a good color laser printer may not print the shaded areas properly, and the color - which is detected by the high-speed scanner - may end up significantly different than intended. Printers (that's "businesses that produce printed material", not "little boxes made by HP") will actually use a red ink, typically formulated to a particular Pantone (or other very specific/defined color) color to produce consistent results. With a typical ink-jet printer, the results are even worse, particularly if one of the ink cartridges is a little low when you print, or if there is any smudging due to wet ink or glossy paper. With a typical desktop printer (color or laser), all colors except pure cyan, magenta, yellow or black are produced by a combination of cyan, magenta, yellow and black. This is a 4-color printing method. But real printing presses can also use specific pre-mixed colored ink. Typical IRS forms would be printed with only black and the specified red - 2 colors instead of 4.

I would not be at all surprised if the PDF, printed on a high-quality color laser printer would work 100% fine - scan by the IRS with no errors. But I wouldn't count on it, and the IRS is telling you don't even try.

Thanks to dave_thompson_085 for the IRS publication that gives the specific ink: Flint J-6983 red OCR dropout ink or an exact match. The same ink is commonly specified for health insurance claim forms, which have a similar history of high-speed scanning long before everyone had a $100 printer/scanner on their desk.

I found one reference to the red being an anti-copying measure. While that could be true, I don't think it is the primary reason. After all, you could receive a completed 1099 (or other form) and white out and overtype the contents and it would not affect the scanning significantly. Plus most of these forms are readily available, so you could make up your own from scratch. The biggest anti-forgery (i.e., copying to somehow mess with the information) feature is likely (or at least should be) that employers send information separately (electronically in most cases), which can be matched against the information sent in by individual taxpayers. Any discrepancy should flag the return for verification.

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    Colors are complicated, to say the least.
    – jaskij
    Jul 26 at 20:01
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    A purpose-designed ink which absorbs everything except a certain narrow wavelength of red, but absorbs very little of that wavelength, may produce results which when viewed under typical lighting would look similar to what would be produced by using a mixture of yellow and magenta ink, but would be invisible if illuminated by monochromatic light of the appropriate wavelength. A yellow+magenta combination scanned under such conditions, however, would not disappear, since instead of reflecting nearly 100% of the right wavelength, it would partially reflect a wider range of wavelengths.
    – supercat
    Jul 26 at 20:47
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    For the specific paper&ink requirements, see sections 2.1.2-10 (pages 9-14) of pub 1179 which is revised each year and also (officially) published as a Revenue Procedure in the IRB = Internal Revenue Bulletin but those are harder to find and for my money harder to read. Jul 27 at 5:20
  • @dave_thompson_085 Thank you! Jul 27 at 14:07
  • So basically, like with so many things in government, they use antiquated systems(scanners) and force us to work around them, instead of upgrading? Color me surprised (not).
    – Eugene
    Jul 28 at 15:24
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If you need official, scannable forms (per their rules), go to the post office.

The problem with submitting home-printed forms is that there are far too many variations on the printed output for the IRS's scanning department to accommodate. People will print on different weights, colors, brightness, base materials, and sizes. The printing software may adjust margins, and sometimes do a fit-to-page approach, and sometimes not. If there's color involved, all printers won't produce color in the same way OR there's the case where (think inkjet) the end user's printer needs to mix color cartridges and one is low on ink.

Again, this is too much variation for the millions of paper-filed documents the IRS has to receive and digitize. So they want you to use only their approved forms where the parameters are known, and consistent.

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  • I haven't checked lately, but in years past I would typically see in the Post Office (and also my local public library) 1040 and related forms, but not 1099s and W-2s. My understanding was that since those are (mostly) forms produced by employers, banks, etc. that they would be expected to pay for those forms, buying them either from an accounting forms supplier or an office supply store (Staples, Office Depot, etc.) - never saw them available for free. Which may also be because those businesses would typically use a lot - even a small business might send dozens of W-2s and/or 1099s. Jul 28 at 16:01

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