We've already covered in detail how Subversion stores and retrieves various versions of files and directories in its repository. Whole chapters have been devoted to this most fundamental piece of functionality provided by the tool. And if the versioning support stopped there, Subversion would still be complete from a version control perspective.

But it doesn't stop there.

In addition to versioning your directories and files, Subversion provides interfaces for adding, modifying, and removing versioned metadata on each of your versioned directories and files. We refer to this metadata as properties, and they can be thought of as two-column tables that map property names to arbitrary values attached to each item in your working copy. Generally speaking, the names and values of the properties can be whatever you want them to be, with the constraint that the names must be human-readable text. And the best part about these properties is that they, too, are versioned, just like the textual contents of your files. You can modify, commit, and revert property changes as easily as you can file content changes. And the sending and receiving of property changes occurs as part of your typical commit and update operations—you don't have to change your basic processes to accommodate them.


Subversion has reserved the set of properties whose names begin with svn: as its own. While there are only a handful of such properties in use today, you should avoid creating custom properties for your own needs whose names begin with this prefix. Otherwise, you run the risk that a future release of Subversion will grow support for a feature or behavior driven by a property of the same name but with perhaps an entirely different interpretation.

Properties show up elsewhere in Subversion, too. Just as files and directories may have arbitrary property names and values attached to them, each revision as a whole may have arbitrary properties attached to it. The same constraints apply—human-readable names and anything-you-want binary values. The main difference is that revision properties are not versioned. In other words, if you change the value of, or delete, a revision property, there's no way within the scope of Subversion's functionality to recover the previous value.

Subversion has no particular policy regarding the use of properties. It asks only that you not use property names that begin with the prefix svn:. That's the namespace that it sets aside for its own use. And Subversion does, in fact, use properties, both the versioned and unversioned variety. Certain versioned properties have special meaning or effects when found on files and directories, or house a particular bit of information about the revisions on which they are found. Certain revision properties are automatically attached to revisions by Subversion's commit process, and carry information about the revision. Most of these properties are mentioned elsewhere in this or other chapters as part of the more general topics to which they are related. For an exhaustive list of Subversion's pre-defined properties, see the section called “Subversion properties”.

In this section, we will examine the utility—both to users of Subversion, and to Subversion itself—of property support. You'll learn about the property-related svn subcommands, and how property modifications affect your normal Subversion workflow.

Why Properties?

Just as Subversion uses properties to store extra information about the files, directories, and revisions that it contains, you might also find properties to be of similar use. You might find it useful to have a place close to your versioned data to hang custom metadata about that data.

Say you wish to design a website that houses many digital photos, and displays them with captions and a datestamp. Now, your set of photos is constantly changing, so you'd like to have as much of this site automated as possible. These photos can be quite large, so as is common with sites of this nature, you want to provide smaller thumbnail images to your site visitors.

Now, you can get this functionality using traditional files. That is, you can have your image123.jpg and an image123-thumbnail.jpg side-by-side in a directory. Or if you want to keep the filenames the same, you might have your thumbnails in a different directory, like thumbnails/image123.jpg. You can also store your captions and datestamps in a similar fashion, again separated from the original image file. But the problem here is that your collection of files grows in multiples with each new photo added to the site.

Now consider the same website deployed in a way that makes use of Subversion's file properties. Imagine having a single image file, image123.jpg, and then properties set on that file named caption, datestamp, and even thumbnail. Now your working copy directory looks much more manageable—in fact, it looks to the casual browser like there are nothing but image files in it. But your automation scripts know better. They know that they can use svn (or better yet, they can use the Subversion language bindings—see the section called “Using the APIs”) to dig out the extra information that your site needs to display without having to read an index file or play path manipulation games.

Custom revision properties are also frequently used. One common such use is a property whose value contains an issue tracker ID with which the revision is associated, perhaps because the change made in that revision fixes a bug filed in the tracker issue with that ID. Other uses include hanging more friendly names on the revision—it might be hard to remember that revision 1935 was a fully tested revision. But if there's, say, a test-results property on that revision with a value all passing, that's meaningful information to have.

Manipulating Properties

The svn command affords a few ways to add or modify file and directory properties. For properties with short, human-readable values, perhaps the simplest way to add a new property is to specify the property name and value on the command line of the propset subcommand.

$ svn propset copyright '(c) 2006 Red-Bean Software' calc/button.c
property 'copyright' set on 'calc/button.c'

But we've been touting the flexibility that Subversion offers for your property values. And if you are planning to have a multi-line textual, or even binary, property value, you probably do not want to supply that value on the command line. So the propset subcommand takes a --file (-F) option for specifying the name of a file which contains the new property value.

$ svn propset license -F /path/to/LICENSE calc/button.c
property 'license' set on 'calc/button.c'

There are some restrictions on the names you can use for properties. A property name must start with a letter, a colon (:), or an underscore (_); after that, you can also use digits, hyphens (-), and periods (.). [9]

In addition to the propset command, the svn program supplies the propedit command. This command uses the configured editor program (see the section called “Config”) to add or modify properties. When you run the command, svn invokes your editor program on a temporary file that contains the current value of the property (or which is empty, if you are adding a new property). Then, you just modify that value in your editor program until it represents the new value you wish to store for the property, save the temporary file, and then exit the editor program. If Subversion detects that you've actually changed the existing value of the property, it will accept that as the new property value. If you exit your editor without making any changes, no property modification will occur:

$ svn propedit copyright calc/button.c  ### exit the editor without changes
No changes to property 'copyright' on 'calc/button.c'

We should note that, as with other svn subcommands, those related to properties can act on multiple paths at once. This enables you to modify properties on whole sets of files with a single command. For example, we could have done:

$ svn propset copyright '(c) 2006 Red-Bean Software' calc/*
property 'copyright' set on 'calc/Makefile'
property 'copyright' set on 'calc/button.c'
property 'copyright' set on 'calc/integer.c'

All of this property adding and editing isn't really very useful if you can't easily get the stored property value. So the svn program supplies two subcommands for displaying the names and values of properties stored on files and directories. The svn proplist command will list the names of properties that exist on a path. Once you know the names of the properties on the node, you can request their values individually using svn propget. This command will, given a property name and a path (or set of paths), print the value of the property to the standard output stream.

$ svn proplist calc/button.c
Properties on 'calc/button.c':
$ svn propget copyright calc/button.c
(c) 2006 Red-Bean Software

There's even a variation of the proplist command that will list both the name and value of all of the properties. Simply supply the --verbose (-v) option.

$ svn proplist -v calc/button.c
Properties on 'calc/button.c':
  copyright : (c) 2006 Red-Bean Software
  license : ================================================================
Copyright (c) 2006 Red-Bean Software.  All rights reserved.

Redistribution and use in source and binary forms, with or without
modification, are permitted provided that the following conditions 
are met:

1. Redistributions of source code must retain the above copyright
notice, this list of conditions, and the recipe for Fitz's famous

The last property-related subcommand is propdel. Since Subversion allows you to store properties with empty values, you can't remove a property altogether using propedit or propset. For example, this command will not yield the desired effect:

$ svn propset license '' calc/button.c
property 'license' set on 'calc/button.c'
$ svn proplist -v calc/button.c
Properties on 'calc/button.c':
  copyright : (c) 2006 Red-Bean Software
  license : 

You need to use the propdel subcommand to delete properties altogether. The syntax is similar to the other property commands:

$ svn propdel license calc/button.c
property 'license' deleted from 'calc/button.c'.
$ svn proplist -v calc/button.c
Properties on 'calc/button.c':
  copyright : (c) 2006 Red-Bean Software

Remember those unversioned revision properties? You can modify those, too, using the same svn subcommands that we just described. Simply add the --revprop command-line parameter, and specify the revision whose property you wish to modify. Since revisions are global, you don't need to specify a target path to these property-related commands so long as you are positioned in a working copy of the repository whose revision property you wish to modify. Otherwise, you can simply provide the URL of any path in the repository of interest (including the repository's root URL). For example, you might want to replace the commit log message of an existing revision. [10] If your current working directory is part of a working copy of your repository, you can simply run the svn propset command with no target path:

$ svn propset svn:log '* button.c: Fix a compiler warning.' -r11 --revprop
property 'svn:log' set on repository revision '11'

But even if you haven't checked out a working copy from that repository, you can still affect the property change by providing the repository's root URL:

$ svn propset svn:log '* button.c: Fix a compiler warning.' -r11 --revprop \
property 'svn:log' set on repository revision '11'

Note that the ability to modify these unversioned properties must be explicitly added by the repository administrator (see the section called “Commit Log Message Correction”). That's because the properties aren't versioned, so you run the risk of losing information if you aren't careful with your edits. The repository administrator can set up methods to protect against this loss, and by default, modification of unversioned properties is disabled.


Users should, where possible, use svn propedit instead of svn propset. While the end result of the commands is identical, the former will allow them to see the current value of the property they are about to change, which helps them to verify that they are, in fact, making the change they think they are making. This is especially true when modifying unversioned revision properties. Also, it is significantly easier to modify multiline property values in a text editor than at the command line.

Properties and the Subversion Workflow

Now that you are familiar with all of the property-related svn subcommands, let's see how property modifications affect the usual Subversion workflow. As we mentioned earlier, file and directory properties are versioned, just like your file contents. As a result, Subversion provides the same opportunities for merging—cleanly or with conflicts—someone else's modifications into your own.

And as with file contents, your property changes are local modifications, only made permanent when you commit them to the repository with svn commit. Your property changes can be easily unmade, too—the svn revert command will restore your files and directories to their un-edited states—contents, properties, and all. Also, you can receive interesting information about the state of your file and directory properties by using the svn status and svn diff commands.

$ svn status calc/button.c
 M     calc/button.c
$ svn diff calc/button.c
Property changes on: calc/button.c
Name: copyright
   + (c) 2006 Red-Bean Software


Notice how the status subcommand displays M in the second column instead of the first. That is because we have modified the properties on calc/button.c, but not its textual contents. Had we changed both, we would have seen M in the first column, too (see the section called “See an overview of your changes”).

You might also have noticed the non-standard way that Subversion currently displays property differences. You can still run svn diff and redirect the output to create a usable patch file. The patch program will ignore property patches—as a rule, it ignores any noise it can't understand. This does, unfortunately, mean that to fully apply a patch generated by svn diff, any property modifications will need to be applied by hand.

Automatic Property Setting

Properties are a powerful feature of Subversion, acting as key components of many Subversion features discussed elsewhere in this and other chapters—textual diff and merge support, keyword substitution, newline translation, etc. But to get the full benefit of properties, they must be set on the right files and directories. Unfortunately, that step can be easily forgotten in the routine of things, especially since failing to set a property doesn't usually result in an obvious error (at least compared to, say, failing to add a file to version control). To help your properties get applied to the places that need them, Subversion provides a couple of simple but useful features.

Whenever you introduce a file to version control using the svn add or svn import commands, Subversion tries to assist by setting some common file properties automatically. First, on operating systems whose filesystems support an execute permission bit, Subversion will automatically set the svn:executable property on newly added or imported files whose execute bit is enabled. (See the section called “File Executability” for more about this property.) Secondly, it runs a very basic heuristic to determine if that file contains human-readable content. If not, Subversion will automatically set the svn:mime-type property on that file to application/octet-stream (the generic “this is a collection of bytes” MIME type). Of course, if Subversion guesses incorrectly, or if you wish to set the svn:mime-type property to something more precise—perhaps image/png or application/x-shockwave-flash—you can always remove or edit that property. (For more on Subversion's use of MIME types, see the section called “File Content Type”.)

Subversion also provides, via its runtime configuration system (see the section called “Runtime Configuration Area”), a more flexible automatic property setting feature which allows you to create mappings of filename patterns to property names and values. Once again, these mappings affect adds and imports, and can not only override the default MIME type decision made by Subversion during those operations, but can also set additional Subversion or custom properties, too. For example, you might create a mapping that says that any time you add JPEG files—ones whose names match the pattern *.jpg—Subversion should automatically set the svn:mime-type property on those files to image/jpeg. Or perhaps any files that match *.cpp should have svn:eol-style set to native, and svn:keywords set to Id. Automatic property support is perhaps the handiest property-related tool in the Subversion toolbox. See the section called “Config” for more about configuring that support.

[9] If you're familiar with XML, this is pretty much the ASCII subset of the syntax for XML "Name".

[10] Fixing spelling errors, grammatical gotchas, and “just-plain-wrongness” in commit log messages is perhaps the most common use case for the --revprop option.