When I ls my Desktop from terminal (by using ls ~/Desktop), I see a file named Icon?. As far as I can tell, it's empty (nano Icon? shows nothing). It doesn't show up on my actual Desktop, and open Icon? shows the Finder alert

This item is used by Mac OS X and can't be opened

Here is the output from mdls Icon?:

kMDItemContentType         = ""
kMDItemFSContentChangeDate = 2009-09-23 13:32:52 -0600
kMDItemFSCreationDate      = 2009-09-20 07:27:46 -0600
kMDItemFSCreatorCode       = "MACS"
kMDItemFSFinderFlags       = 16384
kMDItemFSHasCustomIcon     = 0
kMDItemFSInvisible         = 1
kMDItemFSIsExtensionHidden = 0
kMDItemFSIsStationery      = 0
kMDItemFSLabel             = 0
kMDItemFSName              = "Icon "
kMDItemFSNodeCount         = 0
kMDItemFSOwnerGroupID      = 20
kMDItemFSOwnerUserID       = 501
kMDItemFSSize              = 0
kMDItemFSTypeCode          = "icon"

Does anyone have an idea as to what this is?

  • 6
    The real question is: is there a way to stop the operating system from creating these damn files in every directory? It really annoys me that they show up in Dropbox. – JeremyKun Mar 20 '15 at 23:02
  • 1
    @JeremyKun 2017 here and I'd love to know the answer to this. – escapecharacter Oct 17 '17 at 14:50
  • These files are NOT created automatically "in every directory" unless you have some nasty software that causes their creation. Also - they may annoy you, but they have their functionality too. This the implementation of "Custom user-icon" in MacOS. If user elects to paste any image of his liking to serve as the icon of some file or directory - it will end up as a hidden iCon? file. Deleting them simply removes the custom icon. – Motti Shneor Nov 20 at 12:10
up vote 94 down vote accepted

What is it?

It's name is actually Icon\r, with \r being the carriage return 0x0D. If letting the shell autocomplete the path in Terminal, it yields Icon^M, ^M being \r.

Icon^M is a file existing in all directories that have a custom icon in Finder. If you change a directory's icon e.g. in its Get Info dialog by pasting an image into the icon in the upper left corner, the Icon^M file is created.

Changing a volume's icon creates a hidden .VolumeIcon.icns file instead.

Why is it invisible?

It's invisible in Finder, because its hidden attribute is set.

$ ls -lO Icon^M 
-rw-r--r--@ 1 danielbeck  staff  hidden 0 24 Apr 23:29 Icon?

Change with chflags nohidden Icon^M.

Where is its data?

While the file's data fork (i.e. content) is empty (i.e. a file size of 0 bytes in Terminal), the actual icon data is stored in the file's resource fork.

$ ls -l@ Icon^M
    com.apple.ResourceFork  350895 

You can copy the resource fork to a file (to view e.g. in a hex editor) like this:

$ cp Icon^M/..namedfork/rsrc Icondata

 How can I view it?

The easiest way to get the image is to copy the icon from the Get Info dialog of the folder it's contained in into the clipboard, and then create a new image from clipboard in Preview (Cmd-N). It's an icns image then by default.

Its format is JPEG 2000 according to the Mac OS version of XnView and you should be able to open it with that program. It doesn't seem to work with other programs that should support JPEG 2000, so this format information is probably wrong.

  • 3
    Apple actually do this hiding of their data in a resource fork quite frequently. I can never decide if it's neat or misleading. – Lukasa Jun 18 '11 at 10:10
  • 2
    It's consistent. Icons after all are resource fork contents. – JdeBP Jun 18 '11 at 11:21
  • 3
    You miss the wood for a single tree, grasshopper. Look beyond a volume icon file to the great forest of cases where, traditionally in MacOS at least, icons are to be found in resource forks. If you're trying to be all modern and hip and we-don't-need-no-steenking-resource-forks-we're-Unix-now, you should really correct your answer to use the modern and hip /..namedfork/rsrc suffix instead of the one that generates a warning message. (-: – JdeBP Jun 18 '11 at 17:58
  • 2
    My amazing psychic powers tell me that all of these printfs go to the system log. – JdeBP Jun 19 '11 at 0:47

An Icon? file inside a directory contains a custom icon image for that directory. The image itself is stored inside an extended file attribute, specifically, com.apple.ResourceFork, which is why the Icon? file appears to have no length.

You can retrieve that data with $ xattr -p com.apple.ResourceFork Icon? or view all extended attributes with $ xattr -l Icon?

On Snow Leopard, at least, they appear to have been phased out for system icons (In the case of ~/Desktop/, that icon would be visible when viewing your home directory in icon view.) but for the two custom directory icons I have on my system, it still exists.

  • The "system icons" have never created an Icon^M file as far as I know. Rename these special folders with custom icons (easiest to do with ~/Applications, as it doesn't exist by default anyway) and their icon will change with it. – Daniel Beck Jun 18 '11 at 4:45
  • @Daniel Yup; I suppose OP has a customized icon for his Desktop folder, then. – NReilingh Jun 18 '11 at 4:47

What is it?

It is the file that stores the Image for your Folder Icon, I was only able to get this to be created if I manually loaded an image to the folder. I don't have these on my system by default.

How To Find the Icon^M files

NOTE:

This is not the same as .icns file extension.

Should you be paranoid about if finding a false positive then use:ctrl+v ctrl+m instead of ?

#!/bin/bash
# =============================================================================
# MAC OSX HIGH SIERRA 10.13.4 (17E199)
# Terminal: Version: 2.8.2 64-Bit (Intel): Yes
# Terminal Location: /Applications/Utilities/Terminal.app
# =============================================================================

echo 'Searching Documents for Icon files...'
find ~/Documents -type f -name 'Icon?' -print;

How To Create the Icon^M file

  1. Open Finder
  2. Right Click On a Folder
  3. Press & Hold Option on your keyboard
  4. Select Show Inspector
  5. Drag an image to the top left folder icon.
  6. Run ls -lah on that directory
    1. You should see:
      • -rw-r--r--@ 1 username staff 0B May 13 22:23 Icon?

How Remove the Icon^M file

Should you need to remove it for any reason... say accidentally on purpose testing it.

#!/bin/bash
# =============================================================================
# MAC OSX HIGH SIERRA 10.13.4 (17E199)
# Terminal: Version: 2.8.2 64-Bit (Intel): Yes
# Terminal Location: /Applications/Utilities/Terminal.app
# =============================================================================

echo 'Removing Icon files from Documents...'
find ~/Documents -type f -name 'Icon?' -print -delete;

Reference from my post on another question:

How can I delete empty folders in Mac OS X?

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