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RFC 2781 - UTF-16, an encoding of ISO 10646

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Network Working Group                                        P. Hoffman
Request for Comments: 2781                     Internet Mail Consortium
Category: Informational                                      F. Yergeau
                                                      Alis Technologies
                                                          February 2000

                    UTF-16, an encoding of ISO 10646

Status of this Memo

   This memo provides information for the Internet community.  It does
   not specify an Internet standard of any kind.  Distribution of this
   memo is unlimited.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright (C) The Internet Society (2000).  All Rights Reserved.

1. Introduction

   This document describes the UTF-16 encoding of Unicode/ISO-10646,
   addresses the issues of serializing UTF-16 as an octet stream for
   transmission over the Internet, discusses MIME charset naming as
   described in [CHARSET-REG], and contains the registration for three
   MIME charset parameter values: UTF-16BE (big-endian), UTF-16LE
   (little-endian), and UTF-16.

1.1 Background and motivation

   The Unicode Standard [UNICODE] and ISO/IEC 10646 [ISO-10646] jointly
   define a coded character set (CCS), hereafter referred to as Unicode,
   which encompasses most of the world's writing systems [WORKSHOP].
   UTF-16, the object of this specification, is one of the standard ways
   of encoding Unicode character data; it has the characteristics of
   encoding all currently defined characters (in plane 0, the BMP) in
   exactly two octets and of being able to encode all other characters
   likely to be defined (the next 16 planes) in exactly four octets.

   The Unicode Standard further defines additional character properties
   and other application details of great interest to implementors. Up
   to the present time, changes in Unicode and amendments to ISO/IEC
   10646 have tracked each other, so that the character repertoires and
   code point assignments have remained in sync. The relevant
   standardization committees have committed to maintain this very
   useful synchronism, as well as not to assign characters outside of
   the 17 planes accessible to UTF-16.

   The IETF policy on character sets and languages [CHARPOLICY] says
   that IETF protocols MUST be able to use the UTF-8 character encoding
   scheme [UTF-8]. Some products and network standards already specify
   UTF-16, making it an important encoding for the Internet. This
   document is not an update to the [CHARPOLICY] document, only a
   description of the UTF-16 encoding.

1.2 Terminology

   The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT",
   document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119 [MUSTSHOULD].

   Throughout this document, character values are shown in hexadecimal
   notation. For example, "0x013C" is the character whose value is the
   character assigned the integer value 316 (decimal) in the CCS.

2. UTF-16 definition

   UTF-16 is described in the Unicode Standard, version 3.0 [UNICODE].
   The definitive reference is Annex Q of ISO/IEC 10646-1 [ISO-10646].
   The rest of this section summarizes the definition is simple terms.

   In ISO 10646, each character is assigned a number, which Unicode
   calls the Unicode scalar value. This number is the same as the UCS-4
   value of the character, and this document will refer to it as the
   "character value" for brevity. In the UTF-16 encoding, characters are
   represented using either one or two unsigned 16-bit integers,
   depending on the character value. Serialization of these integers for
   transmission as a byte stream is discussed in Section 3.

   The rules for how characters are encoded in UTF-16 are:

   -  Characters with values less than 0x10000 are represented as a
      single 16-bit integer with a value equal to that of the character

   -  Characters with values between 0x10000 and 0x10FFFF are
      represented by a 16-bit integer with a value between 0xD800 and
      0xDBFF (within the so-called high-half zone or high surrogate
      area) followed by a 16-bit integer with a value between 0xDC00 and
      0xDFFF (within the so-called low-half zone or low surrogate area).

   -  Characters with values greater than 0x10FFFF cannot be encoded in

   Note: Values between 0xD800 and 0xDFFF are specifically reserved for
   use with UTF-16, and don't have any characters assigned to them.

2.1 Encoding UTF-16

   Encoding of a single character from an ISO 10646 character value to
   UTF-16 proceeds as follows. Let U be the character number, no greater
   than 0x10FFFF.

   1) If U < 0x10000, encode U as a 16-bit unsigned integer and

   2) Let U' = U - 0x10000. Because U is less than or equal to 0x10FFFF,
      U' must be less than or equal to 0xFFFFF. That is, U' can be
      represented in 20 bits.

   3) Initialize two 16-bit unsigned integers, W1 and W2, to 0xD800 and
      0xDC00, respectively. These integers each have 10 bits free to
      encode the character value, for a total of 20 bits.

   4) Assign the 10 high-order bits of the 20-bit U' to the 10 low-order
      bits of W1 and the 10 low-order bits of U' to the 10 low-order
      bits of W2. Terminate.

   Graphically, steps 2 through 4 look like:
   U' = yyyyyyyyyyxxxxxxxxxx
   W1 = 110110yyyyyyyyyy
   W2 = 110111xxxxxxxxxx

2.2 Decoding UTF-16

   Decoding of a single character from UTF-16 to an ISO 10646 character
   value proceeds as follows. Let W1 be the next 16-bit integer in the
   sequence of integers representing the text. Let W2 be the (eventual)
   next integer following W1.

   1) If W1 < 0xD800 or W1 > 0xDFFF, the character value U is the value
      of W1. Terminate.

   2) Determine if W1 is between 0xD800 and 0xDBFF. If not, the sequence
      is in error and no valid character can be obtained using W1.

   3) If there is no W2 (that is, the sequence ends with W1), or if W2
      is not between 0xDC00 and 0xDFFF, the sequence is in error.

   4) Construct a 20-bit unsigned integer U', taking the 10 low-order
      bits of W1 as its 10 high-order bits and the 10 low-order bits of
      W2 as its 10 low-order bits.

   5) Add 0x10000 to U' to obtain the character value U. Terminate.

   Note that steps 2 and 3 indicate errors. Error recovery is not
   specified by this document. When terminating with an error in steps 2
   and 3, it may be wise to set U to the value of W1 to help the caller
   diagnose the error and not lose information. Also note that a string
   decoding algorithm, as opposed to the single-character decoding
   described above, need not terminate upon detection of an error, if
   proper error reporting and/or recovery is provided.

3. Labelling UTF-16 text

   Appendix A of this specification contains registrations for three
   MIME charsets: "UTF-16BE", "UTF-16LE", and "UTF-16". MIME charsets
   represent the combination of a CCS (a coded character set) and a CES
   (a character encoding scheme). Here the CCS is Unicode/ISO 10646 and
   the CES is the same in all three cases, except for the serialization
   order of the octets in each character, and the external determination
   of which serialization is used.

   This section describes which of the three labels to apply to a stream
   of text. Section 4 describes how to interpret the labels on a stream
   of text.

3.1 Definition of big-endian and little-endian

   Historically, computer hardware has processed two-octet entities such
   as 16-bit integers in one of two ways. So-called "big-endian"
   hardware handles two-octet entities with the higher-order octet
   first, that is at the lower address in memory; when written out to
   disk or to a network interface (serializing), the high-order octet
   thus appears first in the data stream. On the other hand, "Little-
   endian" hardware handles two-octet entities with the lower-order
   octet first. Hardware of both kinds is common today.

   For example, the unsigned 16-bit integer that represents the decimal
   number 258 is 0x0102. The big-endian serialization of that number is
   the octet 0x01 followed by the octet 0x02. The little-endian
   serialization of that number is the octet 0x02 followed by the octet
   0x01. The following C code fragment demonstrates a way to write 16-
   bit quantities to a file in big-endian order, irrespective of the
   hardware's native byte order.

  void write_be(unsigned short u, FILE f)  /* assume short is 16 bits */
    putc(u >> 8,   f);                     /* output high-order byte */
    putc(u & 0xFF, f);                     /* then low-order */

   The term "network byte order" has been used in many RFCs to indicate
   big-endian serialization, although that term has yet to be formally
   defined in a standards-track document. Although ISO 10646 prefers
   big-endian serialization (section 6.3 of [ISO-10646]), little-endian
   order is also sometimes used on the Internet.

3.2 Byte order mark (BOM)

   The Unicode Standard and ISO 10646 define the character "ZERO WIDTH
   NON-BREAKING SPACE" (0xFEFF), which is also known informally as "BYTE
   ORDER MARK" (abbreviated "BOM"). The latter name hints at a second
   possible usage of the character, in addition to its normal use as a
   genuine "ZERO WIDTH NON-BREAKING SPACE" within text. This usage,
   suggested by Unicode section 2.4 and ISO 10646 Annex F (informative),
   is to prepend a 0xFEFF character to a stream of Unicode characters as
   a "signature"; a receiver of such a serialized stream may then use
   the initial character both as a hint that the stream consists of
   Unicode characters and as a way to recognize the serialization order.
   In serialized UTF-16 prepended with such a signature, the order is
   big-endian if the first two octets are 0xFE followed by 0xFF; if they
   are 0xFF followed by 0xFE, the order is little-endian. Note that
   0xFFFE is not a Unicode character, precisely to preserve the
   usefulness of 0xFEFF as a byte-order mark.

   It is important to understand that the character 0xFEFF appearing at
   any position other than the beginning of a stream MUST be interpreted
   with the semantics for the zero-width non-breaking space, and MUST
   NOT be interpreted as a byte-order mark. The contrapositive of that
   statement is not always true: the character 0xFEFF in the first
   position of a stream MAY be interpreted as a zero-width non-breaking
   space, and is not always a byte-order mark. For example, if a process
   splits a UTF-16 string into many parts, a part might begin with
   0xFEFF because there was a zero-width non-breaking space at the
   beginning of that substring.

   The Unicode standard further suggests than an initial 0xFEFF
   character may be stripped before processing the text, the rationale
   being that such a character in initial position may be an artifact of
   the encoding (an encoding signature), not a genuine intended "ZERO
   WIDTH NON-BREAKING SPACE". Note that such stripping might affect an
   external process at a different layer (such as a digital signature or
   a count of the characters) that is relying on the presence of all
   characters in the stream.

   In particular, in UTF-16 plain text it is likely, but not certain,
   that an initial 0xFEFF is a signature. When concatenating two
   strings, it is important to strip out those signatures, because
   otherwise the resulting string may contain an unintended "ZERO WIDTH

   NON-BREAKING SPACE" at the connection point. Also, some
   specifications mandate an initial 0xFEFF character in objects
   labelled as UTF-16 and specify that this signature is not part of the

3.3 Choosing a label for UTF-16 text

   Any labelling application that uses UTF-16 character encoding, and
   explicitly labels the text, and knows the serialization order of the
   characters in text, SHOULD label the text as either "UTF-16BE" or
   "UTF-16LE", whichever is appropriate based on the endianness of the
   text. This allows applications processing the text, but unable to
   look inside the text, to know the serialization definitively.

   Text in the "UTF-16BE" charset MUST be serialized with the octets
   which make up a single 16-bit UTF-16 value in big-endian order.
   Systems labelling UTF-16BE text MUST NOT prepend a BOM to the text.

   Text in the "UTF-16LE" charset MUST be serialized with the octets
   which make up a single 16-bit UTF-16 value in little-endian order.
   Systems labelling UTF-16LE text MUST NOT prepend a BOM to the text.

   Any labelling application that uses UTF-16 character encoding, and
   puts an explicit charset label on the text, and does not know the
   serialization order of the characters in text, MUST label the text as
   "UTF-16", and SHOULD make sure the text starts with 0xFEFF.

   An exception to the "SHOULD" rule of using "UTF-16BE" or "UTF-16LE"
   would occur with document formats that mandate a BOM in UTF-16 text,
   thereby requiring the use of the "UTF-16" tag only.

4. Interpreting text labels

   When a program sees text labelled as "UTF-16BE", "UTF-16LE", or
   "UTF-16", it can make some assumptions, based on the labelling rules
   given in the previous section. These assumptions allow the program to
   then process the text.

4.1 Interpreting text labelled as UTF-16BE

   Text labelled "UTF-16BE" can always be interpreted as being big-
   endian.  The detection of an initial BOM does not affect de-
   serialization of text labelled as UTF-16BE. Finding 0xFF followed by
   0xFE is an error since there is no Unicode character 0xFFFE.

4.2 Interpreting text labelled as UTF-16LE

   Text labelled "UTF-16LE" can always be interpreted as being little-
   endian. The detection of an initial BOM does not affect de-
   serialization of text labelled as UTF-16LE. Finding 0xFE followed by
   0xFF is an error since there is no Unicode character 0xFFFE, which
   would be the interpretation of those octets under little-endian

4.3 Interpreting text labelled as UTF-16

   Text labelled with the "UTF-16" charset might be serialized in either
   big-endian or little-endian order. If the first two octets of the
   text is 0xFE followed by 0xFF, then the text can be interpreted as
   being big-endian. If the first two octets of the text is 0xFF
   followed by 0xFE, then the text can be interpreted as being little-
   endian. If the first two octets of the text is not 0xFE followed by
   0xFF, and is not 0xFF followed by 0xFE, then the text SHOULD be
   interpreted as being big-endian.

   All applications that process text with the "UTF-16" charset label
   MUST be able to read at least the first two octets of the text and be
   able to process those octets in order to determine the serialization
   order of the text. Applications that process text with the "UTF-16"
   charset label MUST NOT assume the serialization without first
   checking the first two octets to see if they are a big-endian BOM, a
   little-endian BOM, or not a BOM. All applications that process text
   with the "UTF-16" charset label MUST be able to interpret both big-
   endian and little-endian text.

5. Examples

   For the sake of example, let's suppose that there is a hieroglyphic
   character representing the Egyptian god Ra with character value
   0x12345 (this character does not exist at present in Unicode).

   The examples here all evaluate to the phrase:


   where the "*" represents the Ra hieroglyph (0x12345).

   Text labelled with UTF-16BE, without a BOM:
   D8 08 DF 45 00 3D 00 52 00 61

   Text labelled with UTF-16LE, without a BOM:
   08 D8 45 DF 3D 00 52 00 61 00

   Big-endian text labelled with UTF-16, with a BOM:
   FE FF D8 08 DF 45 00 3D 00 52 00 61

   Little-endian text labelled with UTF-16, with a BOM:
   FF FE 08 D8 45 DF 3D 00 52 00 61 00

6. Versions of the standards

   ISO/IEC 10646 is updated from time to time by published amendments;
   similarly, different versions of the Unicode standard exist: 1.0,
   1.1, 2.0, 2.1, and 3.0 as of this writing. Each new version replaces
   the previous one, but implementations, and more significantly data,
   are not updated instantly.

   In general, the changes amount to adding new characters, which does
   not pose particular problems with old data. Amendment 5 to ISO/IEC
   10646, however, has moved and expanded the Korean Hangul block,
   thereby making any previous data containing Hangul characters invalid
   under the new version. Unicode 2.0 has the same difference from
   Unicode 1.1. The official justification for allowing such an
   incompatible change was that no significant implementations and data
   containing Hangul existed, a statement that is likely to be true but
   remains unprovable. The incident has been dubbed the "Korean mess",
   and the relevant committees have pledged to never, ever again make
   such an incompatible change.

   New versions, and in particular any incompatible changes, have
   consequences regarding MIME character encoding labels, to be
   discussed in Appendix A.

7. IANA Considerations

   IANA is to register the character sets found in Appendixes A.1, A.2,
   and A.3 according to RFC 2278, using registration templates found in
   those appendixes.

8. Security Considerations

   UTF-16 is based on the ISO 10646 character set, which is frequently
   being added to, as described in Section 6 and Appendix A of this
   document. Processors must be able to handle characters that are not
   defined at the time that the processor was created in such a way as
   to not allow an attacker to harm a recipient by including unknown

   Processors that handle any type of text, including text encoded as
   UTF-16, must be vigilant in checking for control characters that
   might reprogram a display terminal or keyboard. Similarly, processors

   that interpret text entities (such as looking for embedded
   programming code), must be careful not to execute the code without
   first alerting the recipient.

   Text in UTF-16 may contain special characters, such as the OBJECT
   REPLACEMENT CHARACTER (0xFFFC), that might cause external processing,
   depending on the interpretation of the processing program and the
   availability of an external data stream that would be executed. This
   external processing may have side-effects that allow the sender of a
   message to attack the receiving system.

   Implementors of UTF-16 need to consider the security aspects of how
   they handle illegal UTF-16 sequences (that is, sequences involving
   surrogate pairs that have illegal values or unpaired surrogates). It
   is conceivable that in some circumstances an attacker would be able
   to exploit an incautious UTF-16 parser by sending it an octet
   sequence that is not permitted by the UTF-16 syntax, causing it to
   behave in some anomalous fashion.

9. References

   [CHARPOLICY]  Alvestrand, H., "IETF Policy on Character Sets and
                 Languages", BCP 18, RFC 2277, January 1998.

   [CHARSET-REG] Freed, N. and J. Postel, "IANA Charset Registration
                 Procedures", BCP 19, RFC 2278, January 1998.

   [HTTP-1.1]    Fielding, R., Gettys, J., Mogul, J., Frystyk, H.,
                 Masinter, L., Leach, P. and T. Berners-Lee, "Hypertext
                 Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.1", RFC 2616, June 1999.

   [ISO-10646]   ISO/IEC 10646-1:1993. International Standard --
                 Information technology -- Universal Multiple-Octet
                 Coded Character Set (UCS) -- Part 1: Architecture and
                 Basic Multilingual Plane. 22 amendments and two
                 technical corrigenda have been published up to now.
                 UTF-16 is described in Annex Q, published as Amendment
                 1. Many other amendments are currently at various
                 stages of standardization. A second edition is in
                 preparation, probably to be published in 2000; in this
                 new edition, UTF-16 will probably be described in Annex

   [MUSTSHOULD]  Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate
                 Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, March 1997.

   [UNICODE]     The Unicode Consortium, "The Unicode Standard --
                 Version 3.0", ISBN 0-201-61633-5. Described at


   [UTF-8]       Yergeau, F., "UTF-8, a transformation format of ISO
                 10646", RFC 2279, January 1998.

   [WORKSHOP]    Weider, C., Preston, C., Simonsen, K., Alvestrand, H.,
                 Atkinson, R., Crispin., M. and P. Svanberg, "Report of
                 the IAB Character Set Workshop", RFC 2130, April 1997.

10. Acknowledgments

   Deborah Goldsmith wrote a great deal of the initial wording for this
   specification. Martin Duerst proposed numerous significant changes.
   Other significant contributors include:

   Mati Allouche
   Walt Daniels
   Mark Davis
   Ned Freed
   Asmus Freytag
   Lloyd Honomichl
   Dan Kegel
   Murata Makoto
   Larry Masinter
   Markus Scherer
   Keld Simonsen
   Ken Whistler

   Some of the text in this specification was copied from [UTF-8], and
   that document was worked on by many people. Please see the
   acknowledgments section in that document for more people who may have
   contributed indirectly to this document.

A. Charset registrations

   This memo is meant to serve as the basis for registration of three
   MIME charsets [CHARSET-REG]. The proposed charsets are "UTF-16BE",
   "UTF-16LE", and "UTF-16". These strings label objects containing text
   consisting of characters from the repertoire of ISO/IEC 10646
   including all amendments at least up to amendment 5 (Korean block),
   encoded to a sequence of octets using the encoding and serialization
   schemes outlined above.

   Note that "UTF-16BE", "UTF-16LE", and "UTF-16" are NOT suitable for
   use in media types under the "text" top-level type, because they do
   not encode line endings in the way required for MIME "text" media
   types. An exception to this is HTTP, which uses a MIME-like
   mechanism, but is exempt from the restrictions on the text top-level
   type (see section 19.4.2 of HTTP 1.1 [HTTP-1.1]).

   It is noteworthy that the labels described here do not contain a
   version identification, referring generically to ISO/IEC 10646. This
   is intentional, the rationale being as follows:

   A MIME charset is designed to give just the information needed to
   interpret a sequence of bytes received on the wire into a sequence of
   characters, nothing more (see RFC 2045, section 2.2, in [MIME]). As
   long as a character set standard does not change incompatibly,
   version numbers serve no purpose, because one gains nothing by
   learning from the tag that newly assigned characters may be received
   that one doesn't know about. The tag itself doesn't teach anything
   about the new characters, which are going to be received anyway.

   Hence, as long as the standards evolve compatibly, the apparent
   advantage of having labels that identify the versions is only that,
   apparent. But there is a disadvantage to such version-dependent
   labels: when an older application receives data accompanied by a
   newer, unknown label, it may fail to recognize the label and be
   completely unable to deal with the data, whereas a generic, known
   label would have triggered mostly correct processing of the data,
   which may well not contain any new characters.

   The "Korean mess" (ISO/IEC 10646 amendment 5) is an incompatible
   change, in principle contradicting the appropriateness of a version
   independent MIME charset as described above. But the compatibility
   problem can only appear with data containing Korean Hangul characters
   encoded according to Unicode 1.1 (or equivalently ISO/IEC 10646
   before amendment 5), and there is arguably no such data to worry
   about, this being the very reason the incompatible change was deemed

   In practice, then, a version-independent label is warranted, provided
   the label is understood to refer to all versions after Amendment 5,
   and provided no incompatible change actually occurs. Should
   incompatible changes occur in a later version of ISO/IEC 10646, the
   MIME charsets defined here will stay aligned with the previous
   version until and unless the IETF specifically decides otherwise.

A.1 Registration for UTF-16BE

   To: ietf-charsets@iana.org
   Subject: Registration of new charset

   Charset name(s): UTF-16BE

   Published specification(s): This specification

   Suitable for use in MIME content types under the
   "text" top-level type: No

   Person & email address to contact for further information:
   Paul Hoffman <phoffman@imc.org>
   Francois Yergeau <fyergeau@alis.com>

A.2 Registration for UTF-16LE

   To: ietf-charsets@iana.org
   Subject: Registration of new charset

   Charset name(s): UTF-16LE

   Published specification(s): This specification

   Suitable for use in MIME content types under the
   "text" top-level type: No

   Person & email address to contact for further information:
   Paul Hoffman <phoffman@imc.org>
   Francois Yergeau <fyergeau@alis.com>

A.3 Registration for UTF-16

   To: ietf-charsets@iana.org
   Subject: Registration of new charset

   Charset name(s): UTF-16

   Published specification(s): This specification

   Suitable for use in MIME content types under the
   "text" top-level type: No

   Person & email address to contact for further information:
   Paul Hoffman <phoffman@imc.org>
   Francois Yergeau <fyergeau@alis.com>

Authors' Addresses

   Paul Hoffman
   Internet Mail Consortium
   127 Segre Place
   Santa Cruz, CA  95060 USA

   EMail: phoffman@imc.org

   Francois Yergeau
   Alis Technologies
   100, boul. Alexis-Nihon, Suite 600
   Montreal  QC  H4M 2P2 Canada

   EMail: fyergeau@alis.com

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