Non-text attachments: audio, video, images, application programs etc.
Message bodies with multiple parts
Header information in non-ASCII character sets
Virtually all human-written Internet email and a fairly large proportion of automated email is transmitted via SMTP in MIME format.
MIME is specified in six linked RFC memoranda: RFC 2045, RFC 2046, RFC 2047, RFC 4288, RFC 4289 and RFC 2049; with the integration with SMTP email specified in detail in RFC 1521 and RFC 1522.
Although MIME was designed mainly for SMTP, the content types defined by MIME standards are also of importance outside of email, such as in communication protocols like HTTP for the World Wide Web. Servers insert the MIME header at the beginning of any Web transmission. Clients use this content type or media type header to select an appropriate "player" application for the type of data the header indicates. Some of these players are built into the Web client or browser (for example, almost all browsers come with GIF and JPEG image players as well as the ability to handle HTML files); other players may need to be downloaded.
The presence of this header indicates the message is MIME-formatted. The value is typically "1.0" so this header appears as
According to MIME co-creator Nathaniel Borenstein, the intention was to allow MIME to change, to advance to version 2.0 and so forth, but this decision led to the opposite outcome, making it nearly impossible to create a new version of the standard.
"We did not adequately specify how to handle a future MIME version," Borenstein said. "So if you write something that knows 1.0, what should you do if you encounter 2.0 or 1.1? I sort of thought it was obvious but it turned out everyone implemented that in different ways. And the result is that it would be just about impossible for the Internet to ever define a 2.0 or a 1.1."
This header indicates the media type of the message content, consisting of a type and subtype, for example
Through the use of the multipart type, MIME allows mail messages to have parts arranged in a tree structure where the leaf nodes are any non-multipart content type and the non-leaf nodes are any of a variety of multipart types.
This mechanism supports:
simple text messages using text/plain (the default value for "Content-Type: ")
text plus attachments ( multipart/mixed with a text/plain part and other non-text parts). A MIME message including an attached file generally indicates the file's original name with the "Content-disposition:" header, so the type of file is indicated both by the MIME content-type and the (usually OS-specific) filename extension
reply with original attached ( multipart/mixed with a text/plain part and the original message as a message/rfc822 part)
alternative content, such as a message sent in both plain text and another format such as HTML ( multipart/alternative with the same content in text/plain and text/html forms)
image, audio, video and application (for example, image/jpeg, audio/mp3, video/mp4, and application/msword and so on)
The original MIME specifications only described the structure of mail messages. They did not address the issue of presentation styles. The content-disposition header field was added in RFC 2183 to specify the presentation style. A MIME part can have:
an inline content-disposition, which means that it should be automatically displayed when the message is displayed, or
an attachment content-disposition, in which case it is not displayed automatically and requires some form of action from the user to open it.
In addition to the presentation style, the content-disposition header also provides fields for specifying the name of the file, the creation date and modification date, which can be used by the reader's mail user agent to store the attachment.
The following example is taken from RFC 2183, where the header is defined
Content-Disposition: attachment; filename=genome.jpeg;
modification-date="Wed, 12 Feb 1997 16:29:51 -0500";
The filename may be encoded as defined by RFC 2231.
As of 2010, a good majority of mail user agents do not follow this prescription fully. The widely used Mozilla Thunderbird mail client makes its own decisions about which MIME parts should be automatically displayed, ignoring the content-disposition headers in the messages. Thunderbird prior to version 3 also sends out newly composed messages with inline content-disposition for all MIME parts. Most users are unaware of how to set the content-disposition to attachment. Many mail user agents also send messages with the file name in the name parameter of the content-type header instead of the filename parameter of the content-disposition header. This practice is discouraged – the file name should be specified either through just the
filename parameter, or through both the filename and the name parameters.
In HTTP, the Content-Disposition: attachment response header is usually used to hint to the client to present the response body as a downloadable file. Typically, when receiving such a response, a Web browser will prompt the user to save its content as a file instead of displaying it as a page in a browser window, with the filename parameter suggesting the default file name (this is useful for dynamically generated content, where deriving the filename from the URL may be meaningless or confusing to the user).
In June 1992, MIME (RFC 1341, since made obsolete by RFC 2045) defined a set of methods for representing binary data in formats other than ASCII text format. The content-transfer-encoding: MIME header has 2-sided significance:
It indicates whether or not a binary-to-text encoding scheme has been used on top of the original encoding as specified within the Content-Type header:
If such a binary-to-text encoding method has been used, it states which one.
If not, it provides a descriptive label for the format of content, with respect to the presence of 8-bit or binary content.
The RFC and the IANA's list of transfer encodings define the values shown below, which are not case sensitive. Note that '7bit', '8bit', and 'binary' mean that no binary-to-text encoding on top of the original encoding was used. In these cases, the header is actually redundant for the email client to decode the message body, but it may still be useful as an indicator of what type of object is being sent. Values 'quoted-printable' and 'base64' tell the email client that a binary-to-text encoding scheme was used and that appropriate initial decoding is necessary before the message can be read with its original encoding (e.g. UTF-8).
Suitable for use with normal SMTP:
7bit – up to 998 octets per line of the code range 1..127 with CR and LF (codes 13 and 10 respectively) only allowed to appear as part of a CRLF line ending. This is the default value.
quoted-printable – used to encode arbitrary octet sequences into a form that satisfies the rules of 7bit. Designed to be efficient and mostly human readable when used for text data consisting primarily of US-ASCII characters but also containing a small proportion of bytes with values outside that range.
base64 – used to encode arbitrary octet sequences into a form that satisfies the rules of 7bit. Designed to be efficient for non-text 8 bit and binary data. Sometimes used for text data that frequently uses non-US-ASCII characters.
8bit – up to 998 octets per line with CR and LF (codes 13 and 10 respectively) only allowed to appear as part of a CRLF line ending.
Suitable for use with SMTP servers that support the BINARYMIME SMTP extension (RFC 3030):
binary – any sequence of octets.
There is no encoding defined which is explicitly designed for sending arbitrary binary data through SMTP transports with the 8BITMIME extension. Thus, if BINARYMIME isn't supported, base64 or quoted-printable (with their associated inefficiency) are sometimes still useful. This restriction does not apply to other uses of MIME such as Web Services with MIME attachments or MTOM.
Since RFC 2822, conforming message header names and values should be ASCII characters; values that contain non-ASCII data should use the MIME encoded-word syntax (RFC 2047) instead of a literal string. This syntax uses a string of ASCII characters indicating both the original character encoding (the " charset") and the content-transfer-encoding used to map the bytes of the charset into ASCII characters.
The form is: "=? charset? encoding? encoded text?=".
charset may be any character set registered with IANA. Typically it would be the same charset as the message body.
encoding can be either "Q" denoting Q-encoding that is similar to the quoted-printable encoding, or "B" denoting base64 encoding.
encoded text is the Q-encoded or base64-encoded text.
An encoded-word may not be more than 75 characters long, including charset, encoding, encoded text, and delimiters. If it is desirable to encode more text than will fit in an encoded-word of 75 characters, multiple encoded-words (separated by CRLF SPACE) may be used.
The ASCII codes for the question mark ("?") and equals sign ("=") may not be represented directly as they are used to delimit the encoded-word. The ASCII code for space may not be represented directly because it could cause older parsers to split up the encoded word undesirably. To make the encoding smaller and easier to read the underscore is used to represent the ASCII code for space creating the side effect that underscore cannot be represented directly. Use of encoded words in certain parts of headers imposes further restrictions on which characters may be represented directly.
is interpreted as "Subject: ¡Hola, señor!".
The encoded-word format is not used for the names of the headers (for example Subject). These header names are always in English in the raw message. When viewing a message with a non-English email client, the header names are usually translated by the client.
A MIME multipart message contains a boundary in the "Content-Type: " header; this boundary, which must not occur in any of the parts, is placed between the parts, and at the beginning and end of the body of the message, as follows:
Each part consists of its own content header (zero or more Content- header fields) and a body. Multipart content can be nested. The content-transfer-encoding of a multipart type must always be "7bit", "8bit" or "binary" to avoid the complications that would be posed by multiple levels of decoding. The multipart block as a whole does not have a charset; non-ASCII characters in the part headers are handled by the Encoded-Word system, and the part bodies can have charsets specified if appropriate for their content-type.
Before the first boundary is an area that is ignored by MIME-compliant clients. This area is generally used to put a message to users of old non-MIME clients.
It is up to the sending mail client to choose a boundary string that doesn't clash with the body text. Typically this is done by inserting a long random string.
The last boundary must have two hyphens at the end.
The MIME standard defines various multipart-message subtypes, which specify the nature of the message parts and their relationship to one another. The subtype is specified in the "Content-Type" header of the overall message. For example, a multipart MIME message using the digest subtype would have its Content-Type set as "multipart/digest".
The RFC initially defined 4 subtypes: mixed, digest, alternative and parallel. A minimally compliant application must support mixed and digest; other subtypes are optional. Applications must treat unrecognized subtypes as "multipart/mixed". Additional subtypes, such as signed and form-data, have since been separately defined in other RFCs.
The following is a list of the most commonly used subtypes; it is not intended to be a comprehensive list.
Multipart/mixed is used for sending files with different "Content-Type" headers inline (or as attachments). If sending pictures or other easily readable files, most mail clients will display them inline (unless otherwise specified with the "Content-disposition" header). Otherwise it will offer them as attachments. The default content-type for each part is "text/plain".
The multipart/alternative subtype indicates that each part is an "alternative" version of the same (or similar) content, each in a different format denoted by its "Content-Type" header. The order of the parts is significant. RFC1341 states that: In general, user agents that compose multipart/alternative entities should place the body parts in increasing order of preference, that is, with the preferred format last..
Systems can then choose the "best" representation they are capable of processing; in general, this will be the last part that the system can understand, although other factors may affect this.
Since a client is unlikely to want to send a version that is less faithful than the plain text version, this structure places the plain text version (if present) first. This makes life easier for users of clients that do not understand multipart messages.
Most commonly, multipart/alternative is used for email with two parts, one plain text (text/plain) and one HTML. The plain text part provides backwards compatibility while the HTML part allows use of formatting and hyperlinks. Most email clients offer a user option to prefer plain text over HTML; this is an example of how local factors may affect how an application chooses which "best" part of the message to display.
While it is intended that each part of the message represent the same content, the standard does not require this to be enforced in any way. At one time, anti-spam filters would only examine the text/plain part of a message, because it is easier to parse than the text/html part. But spammers eventually took advantage of this, creating messages with an innocuous-looking text/plain part and advertising in the text/html part. Anti-spam software eventually caught up on this trick, penalizing messages with very different text in a multipart/alternative message.
A multipart/related is used to indicate that each message part is a component of an aggregate whole. It is for compound objects consisting of several inter-related components - proper display cannot be achieved by individually displaying the constituent parts. The message consists of a root part (by default, the first) which reference other parts inline, which may in turn reference other parts. Message parts are commonly referenced by the "Content-ID" part header. The syntax of a reference is unspecified and is instead dictated by the encoding or protocol used in the part.
One common usage of this subtype is to send a web page complete with images in a single message. The root part would contain the HTML document, and use image tags to reference images stored in the latter parts.
Multipart/report is a message type that contains data formatted for a mail server to read. It is split between a text/plain (or some other content/type easily readable) and a message/delivery-status, which contains the data formatted for the mail server to read.
A multipart/signed message is used to attach a digital signature to a message. It has exactly two body parts, a body part and a signature part. The whole of the body part, including mime headers, is used to create the signature part. Many signature types are possible, like "application/pgp-signature" (RFC 3156) and "application/pkcs7-signature" (S/MIME).
A multipart/encrypted message has two parts. The first part has control information that is needed to decrypt the application/octet-stream second part. Similar to signed messages, there are different implementations which are
identified by their separate content types for the control part. The most common types are
"application/pgp-encrypted" (RFC 3156) and "application/pkcs7-mime" (S/MIME).
The content type multipart/x-mixed-replace was developed as part of a technology to emulate server push and streaming over HTTP.
All parts of a mixed-replace message have the same semantic meaning. However, each part invalidates - "replaces" - the previous parts as soon as it is received completely. Clients should process the individual parts as soon as they arrive and should not wait for the whole message to finish.