RFC 1049

Network Working Group                                           M. Sirbu
Request for Comments:  1049                                          CMU
                                                              March 1988



   This RFC suggests proposed additions to the Internet Mail Protocol,
   RFC-822, for the Internet community, and requests discussion and
   suggestions for improvements.  Distribution of this memo is


   A standardized Content-type field allows mail reading systems to
   automatically identify the type of a structured message body and to
   process it for display accordingly.  The structured message body must
   still conform to the RFC-822 requirements concerning allowable
   characters.  A mail reading system need not take any specific action
   upon receiving a message with a valid Content-Type header field.  The
   ability to recognize this field and invoke the appropriate display
   process accordingly will, however, improve the readability of
   messages, and allow the exchange of messages containing mathematical
   symbols, or foreign language characters.

                             Table of Contents

   1. Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
   2. Problems with Structured Messages . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
   3. The Content-type Header Field . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
        3.1. Type Values  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
        3.2. Version Number . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
        3.3. Resource Reference . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
        3.4. Comment. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
   4. Conclusion  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7

1. Introduction

   As defined in RFC-822, [2], an electronic mail message consists of a
   number of defined header fields, some containing structured
   information (e.g., date, addresses), and a message body consisting of
   an unstructured string of ASCII characters.

   The success of the Internet mail system has led to a desire to use
   the mail system for sending around information with a greater degree
   of structure, while remaining within the constraints imposed by the
   limited character set.  A prime example is the use of mail to send a

Sirbu                                                           [Page 1]

RFC 1049                   Mail Content Type                  March 1988

   document with embedded TROFF formatting commands.  A more
   sophisticated example would be a message body encoded in a Page
   Description Language (PDL) such as Postscript.  In both cases, simply
   mapping the ASCII characters to the screen or printer in the usual
   fashion will not render the document image intended by the sender; an
   additional processing step is required to produce an image of the
   message text on a display device or a piece of paper.

   In both of these examples, the message body contains only the legal
   character set, but the content has a structure which produces some
   desirable result after appropriate processing by the recipient.  If a
   message header field could be used to indicate the structuring
   technique used in the message body, then a sophisticated mail system
   could use such a field to automatically invoke the appropriate
   processing of the message body.  For example, a header field which
   indicated that the message body was encoded using Postscript could be
   used to direct a mail system running under Sun Microsystem's NEWS
   window manager to process the Postscript to produce the appropriate
   page image on the screen.

   Private header fields (beginning with "X-") are already being used by
   some systems to affect such a result (e.g., the Andrew Message System
   developed at Carnegie Mellon University).  However, the widespread
   use of such techniques will require general agreement on the name and
   allowed parameter values for a header field to be used for this

   We propose that a new header field, "Content-type:"  be recognized as
   the standard field for indicating the structure of the message body.
   The contents of the "Content-Type:"  field are parameters which
   specify what type of structure is used in the message body.

   Note that we are not proposing that the message body contain anything
   other than ASCII characters as specified in RFC-822.  Whatever
   structuring is contained in the message body must be represented
   using only the allowed ASCII characters.  Thus, this proposal should
   have no impact on existing mailers, only on mail reading systems.

   At the same time, this restriction eliminates the use of more general
   structuring techniques such as Abstract Syntax Notation, (CCITT
   Recommendation X.409) as used in the X.400 messaging standard, which
   are octet-oriented.

   This is not the first proposal for structuring message bodies.
   RFC-767 discusses a proposed technique for structuring multi-media
   mail messages.  We are also aware that many users already employ mail
   to send TROFF, SCRIBE, TEX, Postscript or other structured
   information.  Such postprocessing as is required must be invoked

Sirbu                                                           [Page 2]

RFC 1049                   Mail Content Type                  March 1988

   manually by the message recipient who looks at the message text
   displayed as conventional ASCII and recognizes that it is structured
   in some way that requires additional processing to be properly
   rendered.  Our proposal is designed to facilitate automatic
   processing of messages by a mail reading system.

2. Problems with Structured Messages

   Once we introduce the notion that a message body might require some
   processing other than simply painting the characters to the screen we
   raise a number of fundamental questions.  These generally arise due
   to the certainty that some receiving systems will have the facilities
   to process the received message and some will not.  The problem is
   what to do in the presence of systems with different levels of

   First, we must recognize that the purpose of structured messages is
   to be able to send types of information, ultimately intended for
   human consumption, not expressable in plain ASCII.  Thus, there is no
   way in plain ASCII to send the italics, boldface, or greek characters
   that can be expressed in Postscript.  If some different processing is
   necessary to render these glyphs, then that is the minimum price to
   be paid in order to send them at all.

   Second, by insisting that the message body contain only ASCII, we
   insure that it will not "break" current mail reading systems which
   are not equipped to process the structure; the result on the screen
   may not be readily interpretable by the human reader, however.

   If a message sender knows that the recipient cannot process
   Postscript, he or she may prefer that the message be revised to
   eliminate the use of italics and boldface, rather than appear
   incomprehensible.  If Postscript is being used because the message
   contains passages in Greek, there may be no suitable ASCII
   equivalent, however.

   Ideally, the details of structuring the message (or not) to conform
   to the capabilities of the recipient system could be completely
   hidden from the message sender.  The distributed Internet mail system
   would somehow determine the capabilities of the recipient system, and
   convert the message automatically; or, if there was no way to send
   Greek text in ASCII, inform the sender that his message could not be

Sirbu                                                           [Page 3]

RFC 1049                   Mail Content Type                  March 1988

   In practice, this is a difficult task.  There are three possible

      1. Each mail system maintains a database of capabilities of
         remote systems it knows how to send to.  Such a database
         would be very difficult to keep up to date.

      2. The mail transport service negotiates with the receiving
         system as to its capabilities.  If the receiving system
         cannot support the specified content type, the mail is
         transformed into conventional ASCII before transmission.
         This would require changes to all existing SMTP
         implementations, and could not be implemented in the case
         where RFC-822 type messages are being forwarded via Bitnet or
         other networks which do not implement SMTP.

      3. An expanded directory service maintains information on mail
         processing capabilities of receiving hosts.  This eliminates
         the need for real-time negotiation with the final
         destination, but still requires direct interaction with the
         directory service.  Since directory querying is part of mail
         sending as opposed to mail composing/reading systems, this
         requires changes to existing mailers as well as a major
         change to the domain name directory service.

   We note in passing that the X.400 protocol implements approach number
   2, and that the Draft Recommendations for X.DS, the Directory
   Service, would support option 3.

   In the interest of facilitating early usage of structured messages,
   we choose not to recommend any of the three approaches described
   above at the present time.  In a forthcoming RFC we will propose a
   solution based on option 2, requiring modification to mailers to
   support negotiation over capabilities.  For the present, then, users
   would be obliged to keep their own private list of capabilities of
   recipients and to take care that they do not send Postscript, TROFF
   or other structured messages to recipients who cannot process them.
   The penalty for failure to do so will be the frustration of the
   recipient in trying to read a raw Postscript or TROFF file painted on
   his or her screen.  Some System Administrators may attempt to
   implement option 1 for the benefit of their users, but this does not
   impose a requirement for changes on any other mail system.

   We recognize that the long-term solution must require changes to
   mailers.  However, in order to begin now to standardize the header
   fields, and to facilitate experimentation, we issue the present RFC.

Sirbu                                                           [Page 4]

RFC 1049                   Mail Content Type                  March 1988

3. The Content-type Header Field

   Whatever structuring technique is specified by the Content-type
   field, it must be known precisely to both the sender and the
   recipient of the message in order for the message to be properly
   interpreted.  In general, this means that the allowed parameter
   values for the Content-type:  field must identify a well-defined,
   standardized, document structuring technique.  We do not preclude,
   however, the use of a Content-type:  parameter value to specify a
   private structuring technique known only to the sender and the

   More precisely, we propose that the Content-type:  header field
   consist of up to four parameter values.  The first, or type parameter
   names the structuring technique; the second, optional, parameter is a
   version number, ver-num, which indicates a particular version or
   revision of the standardized structuring technique.  The third
   parameter is a resource reference, resource-ref, which may indicate a
   standard database of information to be used in interpreting the
   structured document.  The last parameter is a comment.

   In the Extended Backus Naur Form of RFC-822, we have:

   Content-Type:= type [";" ver-num [";" 1#resource-ref]] [comment]

3.1. Type Values

   Initially, the type parameter would be limited to the following set
   of values:

   type:=           "POSTSCRIPT"/"SCRIBE"/"SGML"/"TEX"/"TROFF"/

   These values are not case sensitive.  POSTSCRIPT, Postscript, and
   POStscriPT are all equivalent.

   POSTSCRIPT      Indicates the enclosed document consists of
                   information encoded using the Postscript Page
                   Definition Language developed by Adobe Systems,
                   Inc. [1]

   SCRIBE          Indicates the document contains embedded formatting
                   information according to the syntax used by the
                   Scribe document formatting language distributed by
                   the Unilogic Corporation. [6]

   SGML            Indicates the document contains structuring
                   information to according the rules specified for

Sirbu                                                           [Page 5]

RFC 1049                   Mail Content Type                  March 1988

                   the Standard Generalized Markup Language, IS 8879,
                   as published by the International Organization for
                   Standardization. [3] Documents structured according
                   to the ISO DIS 8613--Office Docment Architecture and
                   Interchange Format--may also be encoded using SGML

   TEX             Indicates the document contains embedded formatting
                   information according to the syntax of the TEX
                   document production language. [4]

   TROFF           Indicates the document contains embedded formatting
                   information according to the syntax specified for the
                   TROFF formatting package developed by AT&T Bell
                   Laboratories. [5]

   DVI             Indicates the document contains information according
                   to the device independent file format produced by
                   TROFF or TEX.

   "X-"atom        Any type value beginning with the characters "X-" is
                   a private value.

3.2. Version Number

   Since standard structuring techniques in fact evolve over time, we
   leave room for specifying a version number for the content type.
   Valid values will depend upon the type parameter.

   ver-num:=      local-part

     In particular, we have the following valid values:

     For type=POSTSCRIPT

   ver-num:= "1.0"/"2.0"/"null"

     For type=SCRIBE

   ver-num:= "3"/"4"/"5"/"null"

     For type=SGML


3.3. Resource Reference

   resource-ref:=  local-part

Sirbu                                                           [Page 6]

RFC 1049                   Mail Content Type                  March 1988

   As Apple has demonstrated with their implementation of the
   Laserwriter, a very general document structuring technique can be
   made more efficient by defining a set of macros or other similar
   resources to be used in interpreting any transmitted stream.  The
   Macintosh transmits a LaserPrep file to the Laserwriter containing
   font and macro definitions which can be called upon by subsequent
   documents.  The result is that documents as sent to the Laserwriter
   are considerably more compact than if they had to include the
   LaserPrep file each time.  The Resource Reference parameter allows
   specification of a well known resource, such as a LaserPrep file,
   which should be used by the receiving system when processing the

   Resource references could also include macro packages for use with
   TEX or references to preprocessors such as eqn and tbl for use with
   troff.  Allowed values will vary according to the type parameter.

     In particular, we propose the following values:

     For type = POSTSCRIPT

   resource-ref:=  "laserprep2.9"/"laserprep3.0"/"laserprep3.1"/

     For type = TROFF

   resource-ref:=  "eqn"/"tbl"/"me"/local-part

3.4. Comment

   The comment field can be any additional comment text the user
   desires.  Comments are enclosed in parentheses as specified in

4. Conclusion

   A standardized Content-type field allows mail reading systems to
   automatically identify the type of a structured message body and to
   process it for display accordingly.  The strcutured message body must
   still conform to the RFC-822 requirements concerning allowable
   characters.  A mail reading system need not take any specific action
   upon receiving a message with valid Content-Type header field.  The
   ability to recognize this field and invoke the appropriate display
   process accordingly will, however, improve the readability of
   messages, and allow the exchange of messages containing mathematical
   symbols, or foreign language characters.

Sirbu                                                           [Page 7]

RFC 1049                   Mail Content Type                  March 1988

   In the near term, the major use of a Content-Type:  header field is
   likely to be for designating the message body as containing a Page
   Definition Language representation such as Postscript.

   Additional type values shall be registered with Internet Assigned
   Numbers Coordinator at USC-ISI.  Please contact:

                   Joyce K. Reynolds
                   USC Information Sciences Institute
                   4676 Admiralty Way
                   Marina del Rey, CA  90292-6695

                   213-822-1511    JKReynolds@ISI.EDU


   1.  Adobe Systems, Inc.  Postscript Language Reference Manual.
       Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass., 1985.

   2.  Crocker, David H.  RFC-822:  Standard for the Format of ARPA
       Internet Text Messages.  Network Information Center,
       August 13, 1982.

   3.  ISO TC97/SC18.  Standard Generalized Markup Language.
       Tech. Rept. DIS 8879, ISO, 1986.

   4.  Knuth, Donald E.  The TEXbook.  Addison-Wesley, Reading, Mass.,

   5.  Ossanna, Joseph F. NROFF/TROFF User's Manual.  Bell
       Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey, 1976.  Computing Science
       Technical Report No.54.

   6.  Unilogic.  SCRIBE Document Production Software.  Unilogic, 1985.
       Fourth Edition.

Sirbu                                                           [Page 8]