HTML Clipboard Format

The requirements for transferring HTML text by means of the clipboard differ depending on scenario. This article is concerned with cutting and pasting fragments of an HTML document. There may be requirements for transferring entire HTML documents through the clipboard; however, this article is driven by a requirement to transfer fragments of selected HTML text. As such, a method that required the entire HTML document to be copied to the clipboard is seen as too heavyweight.

The CF_HTML clipboard format allows a fragment of raw HTML text and its context (i.e. outer HTML) to be stored on the clipboard as ASCII. This allows the context of the HTML fragment, which consists of all preceding surrounding tags, to be examined by an application so that the surrounding tags of the HTML fragment can be noted with their attributes. Although it is up to applications to decide how to interpret such fragments, some basic guidelines are included here based on IE4/MSHTML implementations.

The official name of the clipboard (the string used by RegisterClipboardFormat) is "HTML Format".


CF_HTML is a text clipboard format, though always using UTF-8 encoding. Note that the use of UTF-8 here is an exception to the general rule that the Windows API uses UTF-16 for representing text strings, especially human-readable (i.e. localizable) strings.

You can describe the general layout or syntax of the CF_HTML clipboard in pseudo-Backus–Naur form like so:


This grammar is non-normative**

<cf-html>                ::= <description-header> <context>
<context>                ::= [<preceding-context>] <fragment> [<trailing-context>]

<description-header>     ::= "Version:" <version> <br> ( <header-offset-keyword> ":" <header-offset-value> <br> )*
<header-offset-keyword>  ::= "StartHTML" | "EndHTML" | "StartFragment" | "EndFragment" | "StartSelection" | "EndSelection"
<header-offset-value>    ::= { Base 10 (decimal) integer string with optional _multiple_ leading zero digits (see "Offset syntax" below) }
<version>                ::= "0.9" | "1.0"
<fragment>               ::= <fragment-start-comment> <fragment-text> <fragment-end-comment>
<fragment-start-comment> ::= "<!--StartFragment -->"
<fragment-end-comment>   ::= "<!--EndFragment -->"
<preceding-context>      ::= { Arbitrary HTML }
<trailing-context>       ::= { Arbitrary HTML }
<fragment-text>          ::= { Arbitrary HTML }
<br>                     ::= "\r" | "\n" | "\r\n"

Description Headers and Offsets

The description header includes the clipboard version number and offsets, indicating where the context and the fragment start and end. The description is a list of ASCII text keywords followed by a string and separated by a colon (:).

  • Version: vv version number of the clipboard. Starting version is Version:0.9. As of Windows 10 20H2 this is now Version:1.0.
  • StartHTML: Offset (in bytes) from the beginning of the clipboard to the start of the context, or -1 if no context.
  • EndHTML: Offset (in bytes) from the beginning of the clipboard to the end of the context, or -1 if no context.
  • StartFragment: Offset (in bytes) from the beginning of the clipboard to the start of the fragment.
  • EndFragment: Offset (in bytes) from the beginning of the clipboard to the end of the fragment.
  • StartSelection: Optional. Offset (in bytes) from the beginning of the clipboard to the start of the selection.
  • EndSelection: Optional. Offset (in bytes) from the beginning of the clipboard to the end of the selection.

The StartSelection and EndSelection keywords are optional and must both be omitted if you do not want the application to generate this information.

Future revisions of the CF_HTML clipboard format may extend the header, for example, since the HTML starts at the StartHTML offset then multiple StartFragment and EndFragment pairs could be added later to support noncontiguous selection of fragments.

Offset syntax

For the convenience of the programs generating the byte offsets, the offset values may be optionally left-padded with an arbitrary amount of zero digits '0'. The reason for this is that programs sniffing the HTML for the offsets could write ten (10) zeros to its output buffer for each keyword (e.g. StartHTML: 0000000000). Later, when the exact StartHTML offset is known (say, 71), the program can overwrite the rightmost zeroes with "71" in the buffer (e.g. resulting in StartHTML: 0000000071).

The only character set supported by the clipboard is Unicode (UTF-8). Because the first characters of UTF-8 and ASCII match, the description is always ASCII, but the bytes of the context (starting at StartHTML) could be using any other characters encoded in UTF-8.

The ends of lines in the clipboard format header (<br> above) may be represented by CRLF (Windows), LF (Unix), or lone CR (archaic).

The fragment, the selection, and their context

Element Description headers Requires valid HTML for start and end character positions
Context StartHTML and EndHTML Yes
Fragment StartFragment and EndFragment Yes
Selection StartSelection and EndSelection No


The context is a valid, complete HTML document - though this does not mean the entire original source HTML document containing the user's selection will be carried-over verbatim; on the contrary, it can be a minimal, but well-formed, HTML document.

This context contains the fragment and all preceding surrounding tags (start and end tags; these preceding surrounding tags represent all the parent nodes of the fragment, until the HTML node). The above example article has a complete HTML <head> element which permits the use of <base href=""> and <title> elements. For example, this element can be inserted to obtain this additional information. An application copying a fragment of HTML to the clipboard can choose to create a <base href=""> element to include it in the context if such an element is not already present. This way, non-absolute URIs in the HTML fragment can be resolved.

The context is optional, as sufficient information is included in the fragment for basic pasting of an HTML fragment to take place. If the context is not stored, the fragment only is stored and the StartHTML=EndHTML=-1.


The fragment (<fragment-text> above) contains a valid HTML fragment.

A valid HTML fragment consists of a single outer HTML element. This element may contain descendant HTML elements provided they are correctly nested. For example, a fragment could be a single <div> element that contains 3 <p> elements. A fragment consisting of a <span> element that contains three <p> elements would be invalid because a <span> element (an element) cannot contain block-level elements as children.

Thus, the fragment effectively represents the greater area on-screen within, which the user made their text selection (to copy, for example). The selection contains the selected text plus the opening tags and attributes of any element that has an end tag within the selected text, and end tags at the end of the fragment for any start tag included. This is all information required for basic pasting of an HTML fragment.

The fragment should be preceded and followed by the HTML comments <!--StartFragment--> and <!--EndFragment--> to indicate where the fragment starts and ends; these HTML comments must be used verbatim, with no whitespace chars within each comment itself. Thus, the start and end of the fragment are indicated by the presence of these comments and by the StartFragment and EndFragment headers. Tools are expected to produce this information. This redundancy is intentional and was introduced to be able to find the start of the fragment (from the byte count) and mark the position of the fragment directly in the HTML tree.


The selection is optional because sufficient information is included in the fragment for basic pasting. If the selection is not stored, both StartSelection and EndSelection are not stored in the header.

If present, the selection is the exact text range that the user has selected (within the fragment); this adds more information to the fragment by indicating the exact selected text, without the well-formed and balanced start and end tags and end tags.

Remember, the selection can represent a run of text which can start in any given element and end in any subsequent - or ancestor - element. Consequently, it is impossible to represent a text selection using HTML.


The following scenarios describe how the IE4/MSHTML HTML editor handles HTML cut and paste; other applications may or may not follow these scenarios. The clipboard format described here is intended to allow flexibility for how an application chooses to function. (These scenarios show only good HTML, that is, no overlapping tags.)

Scenario 1 - Simple Fragment of HTML

Assume the following HTML text:

<body>This is normal. <b>This is bold.</b> <i><b>This is bold italic.</b> This is italic.</i></body>

This will appear as follows:

This is normal. This is bold.  This is bold italic.  This is italic.

When your user has loaded the above HTML text into an MSHTML-based application (MSHTML, aka Trident, was Internet Explorer's engine), MSHTML handles copying a substring of HTML as follows:

  1. The user selects a text without any leading or trailing whitespace, e.g. "bold This is bold italic This" from the example above.
  2. To copy the text to the clipboard, the user clicks the Copy command button.

MSHTML will place this HTML text into the Windows Clipboard as follows:

<html><!--StartFragment--><body>This is normal. <b>This is bold.</b> <i><b>This is bold italic.</b> This is italic.</i></body><!--EndFragment--></html>

Scenario 2 - Fragment of a table in HTML

Assume the following HTML text:

<BODY><TABLE BORDER><TR><TH ROWSPAN=2>Head1</TH><TD>Item 1</TD><TD>Item 2</TD><TD>Item 3</TD><TD>Item 4</TD></TR><TR><TD>Item 5</TD><TD>Item 6</TD><TD>Item 7</TD><TD>Item 8</TD></TR><TR><TH>Head2</TH><TD>Item 9</TD><TD>Item 10</TD><TD>Item 11</TD><TD>Item 12</TD></TR></TABLE></BODY>

This will appear as follows:

Head 1 Item 1 Item 2 Item 3 Item 4
Item 5 Item 6 Item 7 Item 8
Head 2 Item 9 Item 10 Item 11 Item 12

How MSHTML handles copying a substring of HTML from a table

When the user uses their mouse to make a text selection covering the table cells Item 6, Item 7, Item 10, and Item 11. This selection is then copied into the clipboard.

What follows is what will be on the clipboard (note this is IE4/MSHTML's interpretation). Line-breaks have been added for clarity.

    <TD>Item 6</TD>
    <TD>Item 7</TD>
    <TD>Item 10</TD>
    <TD>Item 11</TD>

The selection, as delimited by StartSelection and EndSelection, is shown in bold.

Scenario 3 - Pasting a fragment of an ordered list <ol> into plain text

Assume the following HTML text:

<BODY><OL TYPE="a"><LI>Item 1<LI>Item 2<LI>Item 3<LI>Item 4<LI>Item 5<LI>Item 6</OL></BODY>

This will appear as follows:

  1. Item 1
  2. Item 2
  3. Item 3
  4. Item 4
  5. Item 5
  6. Item 6

How MSHTML handles copying a substring of HTML numbered list items

  1. The user makes a text selection from the start of item 3, through item 4, and to the end of item 5. The user invokes the Copy command.
  2. The following HTML is in the clipboard (line breaks added for clarity) - the precise location of the <!--Star/EndFragment --> comments depends on how the user handled their browser's text selection logic:
<!-- StartFragment-->
<li>Item 3</li>
<li>Item 4</li>
<li>Item 5</li>
<!-- EndFragment-->

If this fragment were to now be pasted into an empty document, the following HTML will be created:

<li>Item 3</li>
<li>Item 4</li>
<li>Item 5</li>

This will appear as follows:

  1. Item 3
  2. Item 4
  3. Item 5

Scenario 5 - Pasting a partially selected region

Assume the following HTML text:

<p>IE4/MSHTML is a WYSIWYG Editor that supports:</p>
<p>This is a Great Tool!</p>

This will appear as follows:

IE4/MSHTML is a WYSIWYG Editor that supports:

  • Cut
  • Copy
  • Paste

This is a Great Tool!

How MSHTML handles copying a substring of HTML list items

The user uses their mouse to drag a text selection, e.g. "WYSIWYG Editor that supports: Cut Cop". As if it were plain text, that selection would look like this broken HTML fragment:

WYSIWYG Editor, which supports:</p>

When the user presses the Copy command button, their clipboard will look like this (line-breaks have been added for clarity; the bold text denotes what the user actually selected):

<!-- StartFragment-->
<p>WYSIWYG Editor, which supports</p>
<!-- EndFragment-->

Observe that:

  • The text prior to "WYSIWYG" was removed.
  • The list item (<li>Paste</li>) was removed as none of it was in the user's selection.
  • The "y" from "Copy" was removed.

See also