Last Updated: February 25, 2016
· Chip Castle

Copy and paste from the command line on OS X

Most Mac users know they can copy and paste to the clipboard either by
using this feature that is already provided by the application's Edit menu,
or by using the counterpart Command-c and Command-v keyboard shortcuts.
But do they know that OS X also has commands that allow you to copy and
paste directly from the command line?

More often than not, I'm surprised by my pair programming partners who are
unaware of these very useful commands, so I felt like it was a good opportunity
to demonstrate how to use them.

Let's say I have some failing tests that I want to share with someone, in hopes
that they can help me get unblocked on a task. There are many ways to share
the results, but I find that with my co-workers we often post a Gist to so that we can review and
comment on it as a team. I'm usually working directly from the command line
using the Terminal application, and would prefer to do what is necessary
directly from there as opposed to using my trackpad to manually select the test

"So what do you use to capture the data?", you ask?

Well, I usually reach for pbcopy.

Then I can just pipe the results of running the spec, as shown here:

rspec spec/models/whatevs.rb | pbcopy

This simply runs Rspec and sends it's STDOUT (i.e., standard output) to
pbcopy, which copies that data to the clipboard (i.e., pasteboard).

Now I can just head over to my web browser and paste in the output at by using the Command-v
keystroke shortcut (or by using Edit -> Paste from the browser if you're so

Now what if I decide that I would rather email this output to a co-worker as an
attached file?

Since the data is currently stored on the clipboard, I can use counterpart to
pbcopy, which as you might have guessed, is pbpaste.

Let's see that in action:

pbpaste > ~/Desktop/whatevs-results.txt

This command takes the results stored on the clipboard and redirects it to a
newly created file under my Desktop folder.

These commands also have additional options for specifying which pasteboard
to use, as well as what data type to look for, but I won't be covering those
details here since I personally haven't used them yet. However, if you're
interested in the nitty-gritty, please see man pbcopy for more details.

So, next time you need to copy and paste from the command line, keep in mind
that you might not need to use your mouse or trackpad, but instead can use a
combination of pbcopy and pbpaste to get the job done!

For more UNIX tips, please check out Learning the UNIX Command Line.