Shared MIME-info Database

Table of Contents

What is this spec?
Language used in this specification
Overview of previous systems
Unified system
Directory layout
The source XML files
The MEDIA/SUBTYPE.xml files
The glob files
The magic files
Security implications
User preferences



This is version 0.8 of the Shared MIME-info Database spec, last updated 24 Jul 2002.

What is this spec?

Many programs and desktops use the MIME system[MIME] to represent the types of files. Frequently, it is necessary to work out the correct MIME type for a file. This is generally done by examining the file's name or contents, and looking up the correct MIME type in a database.

It is also useful to store information about each type, such as a textual description of it, or a list of applications that can be used to view or edit files of that type.

For interoperability, it is useful for different programs to use the same database so that different programs agree on the type of a file and information is not duplicated. It is also helpful for application authors to only have to install new information in one place.

This specification attempts to unify the MIME database systems currently in use by GNOME[GNOME], KDE[KDE] and ROX[ROX], and provide room for future extensibility.

Language used in this specification

The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT", "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119.

Overview of previous systems


KDE uses .desktop files, with Type=MimeType, one file per type to determine type from file name. The files are arranged in the filesystem to mirror the two-level MIME type hierarchy. The syntax is very similar to other .desktop files, with Name=, Comment= etc.

Example file:

[Desktop Entry]
[... etc. other translations ]


KDE does not have a separate system for specifying extension matches, but uses case-sensitive glob patterns for everything.

A single file stores all the rules for recognising files by content. This is almost identical to file(1)'s magic.mime database file, but without the encoding field.

The format is described in the file itself as follows:

# The format is 4-5 columns:
#    Column #1: byte number to begin checking from, ">" indicates continuation
#    Column #2: type of data to match
#    Column #3: contents of data to match
#    Column #4: MIME type of result


GNOME uses the gnome-vfs library to determine the MIME type of a file. This library loads name-to-type rules from files with a '.mime' extension in a system-wide directory (set at install time), and merged with those in the user's directory. It loads textual descriptions for the types from files in the same directories, ending with '.keys'. The file gnome-vfs.mime in the system directory is always loaded first (allowing everything else to override it). The file user.mime in the user's directory is always loaded last, making these settings take precedence over all others.

The format of the .mime files are described as follows:

# Mime types as provided by the GNOME libraries for GNOME.
# Applications can provide more mime types by installing other
# .mime files in the PREFIX/share/mime-info directory.
# The format of this file is:
# mime-type
#	ext[,prio]:	list of extensions for this mime-type
#	regex[,prio]:	a regular expression that matches the filename
# more than one ext: and regex: fields can be present.
# prio is the priority for the match, the default is 1. This is required
# to distinguish composed filenames, for example .gz has a priority of 1
# and .tar.gz has a priority of 2 (thus a file having the filename
# something.tar.gz will match the mime-type for tar.gz before the mime-type
# for .gz
# The values in this file are kept in alphabetical order for convenience.
# Please maintain this when adding new types. Also consider adding a
# human-readable description to gnome-vfs.keys when adding a new type here.
# Also do please not add illegal mime types, observe the mime standard when
# adding new types.

When looking up the type for a file, gnome-vfs looks first for an exact-case match for the extension, then an all upper-case match, then an all lower-case match. If no matches are found, or there is no '.' in the name, then the regular expression matches are checked. It does this first for rules with priority 2, then for those with priority 1. The modification time on the mime-info directories is used to detect changes.

The .keys files contain type-to-description rules, eg:

	description=Microsoft Word document
	[de]description=Microsoft Word-Dokument

Guidelines for writing descriptions can be found in the mime-descriptions-guidelines.txt file.

The format for magic entries is defined as:

# The format of magic entries is:
#     offset_start[:offset_end] pattern_type pattern [&pattern_mask] type
# <offset_start> and <offset_end> are decimal numbers (file offsets).
# <pattern_type> is (byte | short | long | string | date | beshort |
#                    belong | bedate | leshort | lelong | ledate).
# <pattern> is an ASCII string with non-printable characters escaped
# as hex or octal escape sequences, and spaces and other important
# whitespace escaped with '\'.
# <pattern_mask> is a string of hex digits. The mask must be the same
# length as the pattern.
# <type> is a valid MIME type.
# Order magic patterns such that ambiguous ones (such as
# application/x-ms-dos-executable) are at the end of the list and
# therefore get applied last.
# Avoid rules that require a seek deep into the examined file. If you
# must, locate such rules at the end of the list so that they get
# applied last
# When designing new document formats, make them easily recognizable
# by defining a sufficiently unique magic pattern near the document
# start. A good pattern is at least four bytes long and contains one
# or two non-printable characters so that text files won't be
# misidentified.


ROX searches MIME-info directories in CHOICESPATH (~/Choices/MIME-info:/usr/local/share/Choices/MIME-info:/usr/share/Choices/MIME-info by default). Files from earlier directories override those in later ones, but the order within a directory is not specified.

The files are in the same format as GNOME, except:

  • There are no .keys files, so files of all extensions are loaded.

  • The priority is ignored.

  • A case-sensitive match is tried first, then a lower-case match. No upper-case match is tried.

  • Multiple extensions are allowed. Eg:

    	ext: ps.gz eps.gz

When looking up the type for a file, ROX starts with the first '.' and tries a case-sensitive match of the remaining text against the extensions. The it tries again with the filename in lower-case. It then tries again from the second '.', and so on. If no type is found, it tries the regular expressions.

ROX has no rules for determining a file's type from its contents.

Unified system

In discussions about these systems, it was clear that the differences between the databases were simply a result of them being separate, and not due to any fundamental disagreements between developers. Everyone is keen to see them merged.

This spec proposes:

  • A standard way for applications to install new MIME related information.

  • A standard way of getting the MIME type for a file.

  • A standard way of getting information about a MIME type.

  • Standard locations for all the files, and methods of resolving conflicts.

Further, the existing databases have been merged into a single package [SharedMIME].

Directory layout

There are two important requirements for the way the MIME database is stored:

  • Applications must be able to extend the database in any way when they are installed, to add both new rules for determining type, and new information about specific types.

  • It must be possible to install applications in /usr, /usr/local and the user's home directory (in the normal Unix way) and have the MIME information used.

The directories to be used to store the files in the database are:

  • /usr/share/mime/

  • /usr/local/share/mime/

  • ~/.mime/

In the rest of this document, paths shown with the prefix <MIME> indicate the files should be loaded from all the directries listed above. For example, Load all the <MIME>/text/html.xml files means to load /usr/share/mime/text/html.xml, /usr/local/share/mime/text/html.xml, and ~/.mime/text/html.xml (if they exist).

Where the information from these files is conflicting, information from directories lower in the list takes precedence.

Any file named Override.xml takes precedence over all other files in the same packages directory. Tools which let the user edit the database should edit the file ~/.mime/packages/Override.xml.

Each application that wishes to contribute to the MIME database will install a single XML file, named after the application, into one of the three <MIME>/packages/ directories (depending on where the user requested the application be installed). After installing, uninstalling or modifying this file, the application MUST run the update-mime-database command, which is provided by the shared database[SharedMIME].

update-mime-database is passed the mime directory containing the packages subdirectory which was modified as its only argument. It scans all the XML files in the packages subdirectory, combines the information in them, and creates a number of output files:

  • <MIME>/globs (contains a mapping from extension to MIME type)

  • <MIME>/magic (contains a mapping from file contents to MIME type)

  • <MIME>/MEDIA/SUBTYPE.xml (one file for each MIME type, giving details about the type)

The format of these generated files and the source files in packages are explained in the following sections. This step serves several purposes. First, it allows applications to quickly get the data they need without parsing all the source XML files (the base package alone is over 700K). Second, it allows the database to be used for other purposes (such as creating the /etc/mime.types if desired). Third, it allows some validation to be performed on the input data, and removes the need for other applications to carefully check the input for errors themselves.

The source XML files

Each application provides only a single XML source file, which is installed in the packages directory as described above. This file is an XML file whose document element is named mime-info and whose namespace URI is All elements described in this specification MUST have this namespace too.

The document element may contain zero or more mime-type child nodes, in any order, each describing a single MIME type. Each element has a type attribute giving the MIME type that it describes.

Each mime-type node may contain any combination of the following elements, and in any order:

  • glob elements have a pattern attribute. Any file whose name matches this pattern will be given this MIME type (subject to conflicting rules in other files, of course).

  • magic elements contain a list of match elements, any of which may match, and an optional priority attribute for all of the contained rules. Low numbers should be used for more generic types (such as 'gzip compressed data') and higher values for specific subtypes (such as a word processor format that happens to use gzip to compress the file). The default priority value is 50.

    Each child element can be any of string, host16, host32, big16, big32, little16, little32 or byte. Each of these elements has offset, type, value and, optionally, mask attributes. Each element corresponds to one line of file(1)'s magic.mime file. They can be nested in the same way to provide the equivalent of continuation lines.

  • comment elements give a human-readable textual description of the MIME type. There may be many of these elements with different xml:lang attributes to provide the text in multiple languages.

Applications may also define their own elements, provided they are namespaced to prevent collisions. Unknown elements are copied directly to the output XML files like comment elements.

Here is an example source file, named diff.xml:

<?xml version="1.0"?>
<mime-info xmlns=''>
  <mime-type type="text/x-diff">
    <comment>Differences between files</comment>
    <comment xml:lang="af">verskille tussen lers</comment>
    <magic priority="50">
      <string offset="0" value="diff	"/>
      <string offset="0" value="***	"/>
      <string offset="0" value="Common subdirectories: "/>
    <glob pattern="*.diff"/>
    <glob pattern="*.patch"/>

In practice, common types such as text/x-diff are provided by the shared database. Also, only new information needs to be provided, since this information will be merged with other information about the same type.

The MEDIA/SUBTYPE.xml files

These files have a mime-type element as the root node. The format is as described above. They are created by merging all the mime-type elements from the source files and creating one output file per MIME type. Each file may contain information from multiple source files. The magic and glob elements will have been removed.

The example source file given above would (on its own) create an output file called <MIME>/text/x-diff.xml containing the following:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="utf-8"?>
<mime-type xmlns="" type="text/x-diff">
<!--Created automatically by update-mime-database. DO NOT EDIT!-->
  <comment>Differences between files</comment>
  <comment lang="af">verskille tussen lers</comment>

The glob files

This is a simple list of lines containing a MIME type and pattern, separated by a colon. For example:

# This file was automatically generated by the
# update-mime-database command. DO NOT EDIT!

KDE's glob system replaces GNOME's and ROX's ext/regex fields, since it is trivial to detect a pattern in the form '*.ext' and store it in an extension hash table internally. The full power of regular expressions was not being used by either desktop, and glob patterns are more suitable for filename matching anyway.

Applications MUST first try a case-sensitive match, then a case-insensitive one. This is so that main.C will be seen as a C++ file, but IMAGE.GIF will still use the *.gif pattern.

If several patterns match then the longest pattern SHOULD be used. In particular, files with multiple extensions (such as Data.tar.gz) MUST match the longest sequence of extensions (eg '*.tar.gz' in preference to '*.gz'). Literal patterns (eg, 'Makefile') must be matched before all others. It is acceptable to match patterns of the form '*.text' before other wildcarded patterns (that is, to special-case extensions using a hash table).

There may be several rules mapping to the same type. They should all be merged. If the same pattern is defined twice, then they MUST be ordered by the directory the rule came from, as described above.

Common types (such as MS Word Documents) will be provided in the X Desktop Group's package, which SHOULD be required by all applications using this specification. Since each application will then only be providing information about its own types, conflicts should be rare.

The magic files

These files have a similar format to file(1)'s magic.mime file. Each line may be either a comment (starting with '#'), a new type (starting with '[') or a rule to match (anything else).

Type lines are in the form "[" PRIORITY ":" TYPE "]".

Match lines are in the form ">"* START [":" END] TAB TYPE ["&" MASK] TAB VALUE. The offsets may be a range in the form START:END. The rule is considered to match if there is a match at either of these offsets, or at any offset in-between. The line may start with zero or more ">" characters, as for the normal file syntax. Whitespace in the value (after the tab) is significant, and fields are separated by exactly one tab character.

The above example would create a magic file with these contents:

# This file was automatically generated by the
# update-mime-database command. DO NOT EDIT!
0	string	diff 
0	string	*** 
0	string	Common subdirectories: 

Security implications

The system described in this document is intended to allow different programs to see the same file as having the same type. This is to help interoperability. The type determined in this way is only a guess, and an application MUST NOT trust a file based simply on its MIME type. For example, a downloader should not pass a file directly to a launcher application without confirmation simply because the type looks `harmless' (eg, text/plain).

Do not rely on two applications getting the same type for the same file, even if they both use this system. The spec allows some leeway in implementation, and in any case the programs may be following different versions of the spec.

User preferences

The MIME database is NOT intended to store user preferences. Although users can edit the database, this is only to provide corrections and to allow them to install software themselves. Information such as "text/html files should be opened with Mozilla" should NOT go in the database. However, it may be used to store static information, such as "Mozilla can view text/html files", and even information such as "Galeon is the GNOME default text/html browser" (via an extension element with a GNOME namespace).


[GNOME] The GNOME desktop,

[KDE] The KDE desktop,

[ROX] The ROX desktop,

[DesktopEntries] Desktop Entry Specification,

[SharedMIME] Shared MIME-info Database