Copying to the iOS Clipboard Over SSH with Control Codes

May 19, 2020

Let’s delve again into copying text to the iOS clipboard from a remote computer over SSH.

Recently, I covered one way to do this using a custom script. This time, we’ll look at a better approach – the OSC 52 control code.

The Yank Script

It turns out that Blink can copy text from a remote computer into the iOS clipboard natively using the OSC 52 terminal control sequence. If you configure the remote computer to emit this code, Blink will copy text from the that computer into the iOS clipboard.

There’s a script called yank that works well for this. Check it out – it’s pretty short.

You’ll drop that script into a directory on your PATH, on the remote computer, and make it executable.

Configuring tmux

So what can you do with this? I use tmux and Vim, so I configured both tools to pipe copied text to the yank script. With newer versions of tmux, the key binding looks like this:

bind -T copy-mode-vi y send-keys -X copy-pipe-and-cancel 'yank > #{pane_tty}'
bind -T copy-mode-vi Enter send-keys -X copy-pipe-and-cancel 'yank > #{pane_tty}' 

If you haven’t seen this type of binding before in tmux, here’s how it works. I use vi key bindings in tmux’s copy mode – the mode that lets you scroll up and select text – and whenever I press “y” to copy text, tmux pipes the text to the yank script.

Configuring Vim

To configure Vim, I created a key binding that, like tmux, pipes whatever I’ve selected to the “yank” script.

" copy to attached terminal using the yank(1) script:
function! Yank(text) abort
  let escape = system('yank', a:text)
  if v:shell_error
    echoerr escape
    call writefile([escape], '/dev/tty', 'b')
noremap <silent> <C-c> y:<C-U>call Yank(@0)<CR>

I picked up this code directly from the blog post where I first read about OSC 52, where you can find more snippets.


There are two limitations you should know about the OSC 52 control sequence.

  1. The Blink app only supports this sequence over SSH, not mosh.
  2. The maximum number of bytes you can copy is 74,994, which is about 75 kilobytes.

I’m OK with both of these.

If you’ve used mosh on an iPad with an app link Blink or Termius, you’ll know that it handles mobile networking situations better than SSH. However, if you already use tmux, reconnecting to a server and running tmux -u a -d to attach to your session is a minor inconvenience to get native copy and paste working.

I hope we get support for using OSC 52 over mosh in Blink soon. In the meantime, I’m more than happy to use SSH!