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How to read and copy text on the screen on macOS

Text on a website viewed in a browser, text or commands executed in the Terminal, and text in documents and spreadsheets can be copied easily. In many cases, you may be able to retain the formatting that’s been applied to text e.g., if you’re copying a heading from a webpage or if you’re copying a paragraph from a document.

As users, we see text everywhere on our computers; it isn’t limited to websites or documents. System information, error messages, file paths, and more all presented as text. In some cases (like file paths) we can copy the text to the clipboard but in many others, we can’t.

Copy text on the screen

The text that we see on our screens can easily be recognized or ‘read’ by a computer. It’s a simple, clean font and there is no shortage of OCR tools that can read it.

To copy text on your Mac’s screen, follow these steps.

  1. Download a free app called OwlOCR from the Mac App Store.
  2. Run the app and click ‘Screenshot’ at the top.
  3. Drag the crosshair over the part of the screen you want to ‘read’ text from.
  4. Once the screenshot has been captured, OwlOCR will display text from it.
  5. Copy the text to the clipboard.

Read text from a photo

If you own an iPhone (or iPad), you can use OwlOCR to take a photo with it, transfer the photo to your Mac, and read the text from it. All this is done seamlessly and without installing anything on the iPhone.

  1. Open OwlOCR.
  2. Click Photo/Scan in the toolbar at the top.
  3. Select Take Photo.
  4. On your iPhone, the Camera app will open. Take a photo of text.
  5. The photo will appear in OwlOCR along with the text that was ‘read’ from it.

Note: If OwlOCR says it cannot find your phone, lock the screen and then try again. The feature uses ‘Continuity Camera’ and requires WiFi and Bluetooth to be turned on, on both the Mac and iPhone. You must be running iOS 12 or later to use Continuity Camera.


OwlOCR is feature-rich and free. It has a pro-version that offers a multiple-screenshot feature but the app is perfectly usable without the pro version. It has the same limitations that most OCR apps have i.e. it won’t retain the formatting of text in paragraphs and will instead display text line-by-line, as it is read. The one shortcoming it has is that the app’s window doesn’t automatically hide when a user goes to take a screenshot meaning it will obstruct the screen unless the user moves it out of the way first or sets it to run in the menu bar from its preferences. The app supports keyboard shortcuts.


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