File "Created Date" Under OS X -- Harder Than You Think

A client had an OS X server with tens of thousands of files in a directory tree, and wanted to move some of them based on their creation date. I put together a Python script that worked perfectly on my test system, but failed in production. (I put in a "--dryrun" option, so no harm was done.)

The modification date the script reported was correct, but the creation date the script reported was different from the creation date that doing "Get Info" in the OS X Finder reported. Hmm. Not good. I did some investigating.

Let's look at a test file. The Finder reports the following creation and modification dates:

Created: Monday, April 10, 2006 17:04
Modified: Thursday, April 13, 2006 15:54

Python reports a different creation date and the same modification date:

>>> import os.path
>>> import time
>>> stamp = os.path.getctime('datetest.txt')
>>> time.ctime(stamp)
'Fri Apr 10 15:51:10 2009'
>>> stamp = os.path.getmtime('datetest.txt')
>>> time.ctime(stamp)
'Thu Apr 13 15:54:43 2006'

Hmmm. What does "ls" in the Terminal report? The standard "ls -l" reports creation date. Adding "-T" makes it report the full date in all cases. And "-c" counter-intuitively means "display modification date."

$ ls -lT datetest.txt
-rwxr-xr-x@ 1 schof  schof  2448091 Apr 13 15:54:43 2006 datetest.txt
$ ls -lcT datetest.txt
-rwxr-xr-x@ 1 schof  schof  2448091 Apr 10 15:51:10 2009 datetest.txt

The plot thickens. The modification date matches the Finder and Python, but both Python and ls are reporting an incorrect (according to the Finder) creation date.

Quite a bit of Googling showed me the "mdls" tool -- or "metadata ls." Very useful. This shows the complete set of metadata for a file. Including the OS X creation date. Actually, two creation dates, one for the file, and one for the file content. (I'm not sure what circumstances would make those creation dates differ. The documentation I've been able to find has been unclear and contradictory.)

$ mdls datetest.txt
kMDItemContentCreationDate     = 2006-04-10 17:04:34 -0700
kMDItemContentModificationDate = 2006-04-13 15:54:43 -0700
kMDItemFSContentChangeDate     = 2006-04-13 15:54:43 -0700
kMDItemFSCreationDate          = 2006-04-10 17:04:34 -0700
kMDItemLastUsedDate            = 2009-04-11 11:48:03 -0700
kMDItemUsedDates               = (
2009-04-11 00:00:00 -0700

Now that we've got all that information, what does it tell us? The Unix/Linux standard for "creation date" is to show you the date on which a particular file was created. If you copy file "a" to file "b," those are two different files, and the "creation date" for file "b" will be the date you made the copy.

OS X metadata travels with the file, so if you copy file "a" to file "b" using ditto on the command-line or using the Finder, the Unix creation date will be the date the copy was done, but the OS X creation date of file "b" will be the same as file "a."

There's good arguments for handling "creation date" the Unix way, and there are good arguments for doing "creation date" the OS X way, but mixing them as OS X does is kind of frustrating.

I've written a quick-and-dirty Python example script that reports the Unix creation date and the OS X creation date for any particular file. Since it's released under the open-source MIT license, feel free to use it in your own programs. You can find it on github.