I have two identically-named directories:

$ ls mydir
file1 file2

$ ls other/mydir
file3 file4

If I copy mydir to other, the two mydirs get merged:

$ cp -r mydir other

$ ls other/mydir
file1 file2 file3 file4

Where in the man (or info) page for cp does it say it does this by default?

The same thing happens if I use cp -rn mydir other.

I would prefer it if cp asked me whether I want to merge the two mydirs; so that if I copy mydir to other while forgetting that there is already a different mydir in other, I could abort the operation. Is this possible?

  • The man page of cp says that the -n flag avoids overwriting existing files, it says nothing about directories. Like cp many other commands have flags to avoid overwriting existing files. Examples of such commands are tar (-k) and rsync (--ignore-existing). Unfortunately I know no command line tool which avoids merging directories at recursive copying. – Henrik Carlqvist Dec 19 '15 at 22:33
  • 2
    Not sure if this is what you are looking for but you could add a little test before running cp command. if [ ! -d other/mydir] ; then; cp -r mydir other; else; echo "Directory already exists at destination"; fi – Munir Dec 19 '15 at 23:41
  • 1
    @munircontractor, I think that is indeed the best solution. It could be cleaned up a little but the truth is that the core answer to the exact title question is: "You can't prevent cp from doing that unless you check first, so make sure you check first." – Wildcard Dec 20 '15 at 6:49
  • @munircontractor - Thank you for a simple solution. The only problem is that it's easier to check manually using ls rather than edit this script each time. – EmmaV Dec 21 '15 at 0:06

I don't see this documented in the manual of GNU coreutils. It is specified by POSIX:

2. If source_file is of type directory, the following steps shall be taken:

[snip steps that don't apply in recursive mode when the target file is an existing directory]

    f. The files in the directory source_file shall be copied to the directory dest_file […]

cp -rn doesn't help because the -n option only says “don't overwrite”, but merging directories doesn't overwrite anything.

I don't see any option to rsync or pax that would help you.

You can get this behavior with a wrapper around cp. Parsing the command line options is fiddly though. Untested code. Known issue: this doesn't support abbreviated long options.

function cp {
  typeset source target=
  typeset -a args sources
  args=("$@") sources=()
  while [[ $# -ne 0 ]]; do
    case "$1" in
      --target|-t) target=$2; shift args;;
      --target=*) target=${1#*=};;
      -t?*) target=${1#??};;
      --no-preserve|--suffix|-S) shift;;
      --) break;;
      -|[^-]*) if [ -n "$POSIXLY_CORRECT" ]; then break; else sources+=($1); fi;;
  if [[ -z $target && ${#sources[@]} -ne 0 ]]; then
    unset sources[-1]
  for source in "${sources[@]}"; do
    if [ -e "$target/${source##*/}" ]; then
      echo >&2 "Refusing to copy $source to $target/${source##*/} because the target already exists"
      return 1
  command cp "$@"
  • Wait, what, shift args? – Arthur2e5 Dec 20 '15 at 6:24
  • @Arthur2e5 Sorry, zshism. I fixed that and a few other errors. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Dec 20 '15 at 15:20
  • Thank you. I think I'm obliged to accept this because of the huge amount of effort you've obviously put into it. – EmmaV Dec 21 '15 at 0:01

You could create a wrapper script for copying directories (cpDirs) that'll check if any merges would occur:

test -d "$1" && test -d "$2" || { >&2 echo "Not directories"; exit 1; }

conflicts="`for d in "$1" "$2"; do (cd "$d"; find -mindepth 1 -type d); done | 
            sort |uniq -d`"
if [ -n "$conflicts" ]; then
  >&2 printf 'The following directories would be merged:\n%s\n' "$conflicts"
  exit 1
  cp -r "$@"
cd /src/path &&
find .  -type d ! -name . -prune \
\(      -exec   test -e /tgt/path/{} \; \
        \(      -ok     echo cp -rt /tgt/path {} \; \
             -o -exec   printf 'not copied:\t%s\n' {} \; \
\)      \) -o ! -name . -exec echo cp -rt /tgt/path {} +

find's -ok primitive works like -exec except that it first prompts to its stderr with a description of the command it is about to run and awaits an affirmative or negative response (like y or n) followed by enter. The above find script will prompt for confirmation if a directory in /src/path also exists in /tgt/path before copying it, but all found files in /src/path are copied without prompting.

(you'll have to remove the echos to make it do anything more than pretend to work, though)

Another find script which calls a shell for first-level directories below /src/path might look like:

cd /src/path &&
find . ! -name . -prune -exec sh -c '
    [ -t 0 ] && 
    trap "stty $(stty -g;stty -icanon)
          trap - 0 1 2;  exit" 0 1 2 
    for f
    do    [ -e "$0/$f" ] &&
          case $(printf "%b:\n%s\n" >&2 \
                     \\nsource "$(ls -ld -- "$PWD/$f")" \
                     \\ntarget "$(ls -ld -- "$0/$f")"   \
                     "copy source over target?(\"y\"es|a\"no\"ther key): \c"
                 dd count=1 2>/dev/null
                 echo >&2) in ([yY]) ! :
          esac|| set -- "$@" "$f"; shift
    done; cp -r "$@" "$0"
'   /tgt/path {} +

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