Thoughtful, detailed coverage of the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, plus the TidBITS Content Network for Apple consultants.

Dropbox Public Folder Leaves and Returns

One notable feature of the Dropbox file-sharing service is the Public folder. Put any file or folder in that folder, Control-click the item, and choose Dropbox > Copy Public Link to get a download URL for it, while not exposing any other items in the Public folder or having to set up explicit sharing. When clicked, the file loads in the user’s Web browser, which means, for everything other than the file types that Web browsers display internally (HTML, JPEG, GIF, often PDF), that the file downloads immediately.

It’s a great way to let someone — or better yet, an arbitrary group — download a file without sending it in email or fussing with a specialized service like YouSendIt. (Such services have their place, since they offer additional features such as time-limited downloads, password protection, and so on. But they’re often overkill, and Dropbox is super easy.)

You can even use Dropbox’s Public folder as a way of publishing a simple Web site; just put all your site files in a folder, copy that folder to the Public folder, and use the same technique to get the URL to the index.html file of the site. As long as your site uses relative links for internal navigation, everything will just work.

A few months ago, however, Dropbox made it possible to share any file or folder from any place in the Dropbox hierarchy in much the same way. Control-click the item and choose Dropbox > Get Link. This nominally does the same thing — enables you to share a single file or folder via a URL without sharing the enclosing folder with that person. But there’s a difference. This new method always takes you to a Web page on the Dropbox Web site, displaying the content if the browser can do so. But if it can’t display the content, instead of downloading the file as happens with files in the Public folder, Dropbox displays a custom Web page that lets the user download the file or add it to their own Dropbox. And as a result, you can’t publish a simple Web site that way.

You might think that these two features sound quite similar, and that’s where our story starts, about a month ago, when word appeared on the Dropbox forums that Dropbox would be eliminating the Public folder from new accounts. Current accounts would retain the Public folder, Dropbox said, but the company claimed that many users were confused by the Public folder and shared files offering essentially the same functionality.

This announcement provoked a storm of protest — and even a “Save the Public Folder” petition that garnered over 900 signatures — since even if only a small percentage of Dropbox users rely on the Public folder, some of those who do have use cases that require direct file access rather than an intermediate Web page. Plus, some developers had built software that assumes the presence of a Public folder.

About a week after the initial announcement, Dropbox pulled back, with another forum post saying that new users wouldn’t have the Public folder enabled by default, but that there would be a way for them to get one. That post also said that developers should still avoid relying on the Public folder, since not every Dropbox user would necessarily have one, and that the company wants to provide equivalent functionality through the API where possible. It’s not quite clear if that is true at the moment, but progress is being made.

It’s easy to see this as a tempest in a teapot, but there’s no way for us to know if the public outcry was key for the company making the Public folder an option for new users and extending the Dropbox API for developers. It’s entirely possible that Dropbox simply underestimated the desire for the Public folder and some of its associated features, and the hue and cry from users and developers alike caused the change in policy. If so, there’s no reason to assume negative intentions anywhere — Dropbox removed the feature to make the product easier for new users, and after hearing customer feedback, reinstated it for those who want it and extended the API to compensate further.

The moral of the story would seem to be that all’s well that ends well, and if you’re helping a new user set up Dropbox in the future, you may need to poke around in the settings to enable the Public folder.


Backblaze is unlimited, unthrottled backup for Macs at $5/month.
Web access to files means your data is always available. Restore
by Mail allows you to recover files via a hard drive or USB.
Start your 15-day trial today! <>

Comments about Dropbox Public Folder Leaves and Returns
(Comments are closed.)

Kevin Patfield  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2012-07-15 00:59
Thanks for explaining the difference between the original "copy public link" and "get link" features. Since the latter was introduced I've been trying to figure out the difference. I've been using the first method for some time to support simple low traffic web sites.
DA Christians  2012-07-15 18:46
I've started using Dropbox recently. I noticed that when I copy something to it, it removes the original file. It seems to work like a move, like from one folder to another one. I like to keep the original and have a copy in my Dropbox. Is this possible and how?
SSteve  2012-07-16 01:23
OS X sees your Dropbox folder as just another folder on your hard drive, so when you drag a file from another folder on the same hard drive, the file is moved. If you want to copy a file when dragging in Finder, hold down the Option key before releasing the mouse button. While you hold down the Option key, you'll see the cursor gain a plus sign indicating the copy action.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-16 10:54
SSteve is exactly right!
Dana Schwartz  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2012-07-16 23:04
Unfortunately, they weren't as accommodating when they removed the "Gallery" functionality without notice (which I used extensively to allow a small group of users to browse through 1500+ photos and only download the ones they wanted). My old Gallery still works, but I can't create any new ones. I think the number of complaints about this was comparable to the number about the Public folder.

IMO, the problem at Dropbox is their "we'll decide what the users want" attitude. They used to have a place where users could vote on what changes they wanted, but after a while it became ludicrous as the most voted for items never got done or addressed in any way.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-17 16:49
Ach, sorry to hear it! I'd never used the Photos folder for anything real, so I hadn't run across the Gallery feature.

Many companies have that sort of attitude these days - Apple more than anyone - and while I understand it to a certain extent, it does grate on the nerves for anyone who ends up on the wrong side of one of those decisions. The whole "the customer is always right" mantra seems to be a thing of the past.
Minus van Baalen  2012-07-18 10:50
I occasionally use the Gallery function: it is still there, but there seems to be no longer any instructions on the website so as to how to use it-but my Photos folder still has a rtf with instructions. Maybe this rtf is no longer added to new DropBox accounts?
The only minor problem I have is that I find it very difficult to copy the link on my iPad (there is a button but it uses Flash). Also, the hrefs are long and tend to get badly treated by mail programs, so one needs tinyurl or something similar to mail them.
Dana Schwartz  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2012-07-18 18:03
Unfortunately, what remains now pales in comparison to the old Gallery feature, has few of the original functionality, and is awkward & nonintuitive to set up
IMO. If Dropbox is going to cease support for the old Gallery code, I'd love to have it released publicly so I could implement it on another server.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-18 16:26
Thanks to Minus's comment, I did a little research and I think the Gallery feature was just folded into the shared file feature.

Make a folder in the Photos folder, copy photos into it, Control-click the folder, and choose Dropbox > Get Link. Then, on the Web, you'll see a gallery view of the enclosed photos.
Minus van Baalen  2012-07-19 01:54
There (still) is another way! Create a folder with pictures in your Photos folder and then go to . You have to do this manually as there seems to be no link on the dropbox page (or in de DropBox) menu item. This gets you to a page with gallery representations of your photo folders.
Médard  2012-07-17 04:09
I DO use the Public Folder on Dropbox!

Useful, to add some pictures in my Scriptogram blog!

-- Scriptogram works with Dropbox like the now sleeping Calepin

I never heard of deleting the Public Folder functionality, as my

blog was normally working ;-)

rpoland  2012-07-17 08:59
I have tried "Control-click the item, and choose Dropbox > Copy Public Link to get a download URL for it" by clicking on the file index.html, the Public folder and the items in the Dropbox website.
None give me the options you refer to.
Latest version of dropbox and OS 10.7.4.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-17 16:51
When you Control-click an item in your Dropbox Public folder, do you get a Dropbox submenu in the menu that appears? It's possible that your version has gotten corrupted in some way and is no longer modifying the contextual menu. How about when you Control-click other items in the Dropbox folder?
rpoland  2012-07-17 17:16
On my MBP I get the submenu with "Dropbox" but there is no "copy Public Link" item. There is an item "Get Link" which gets text rather than website.

Same for other items, not in Public folder.

On my iMac I trashed Dropbox and reinstalled it. Still waiting for it to sync.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-17 17:22
Interesting. Perhaps check your account settings on the Dropbox Web site - maybe your Public folder ended up being disabled in some way. It's definitely still working here.
rpoland  2012-07-17 17:48
Can I email you a screenshot to see if we're on the same page?
JerryNaples  2012-07-17 16:21
Is there a link to the method to get a Public folder installed / visible for the New Dropbox customer?

I've Dropbox account but it is 'grandfathered".

I'm trying to encourage new users but would like to know the method to turn on Public folders for these new users

Thanks in advance

Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-17 16:52
As far as I'm aware (and I haven't created a new account to test for certain) the change hasn't happened yet, so new accounts should still get the Public folder. Once the change does go into place, we'll be sure to say (at least here, if not in another article) how to get the Public folder back.
JerryNaples  2012-07-17 19:44
Kevan Pegley  2012-07-18 05:27
I thought I would add my experience of using both the Copy Public Link and the Get Link actions, which really do work quite differently.

As is now well established, right/control-clicking on a file in the Public folder gives you an option to Copy Public Link. This copies the file's URL to the clipboard. The link is in the form:

You send it to someone, they click it, and -- here's the thing -- if the linked file is of a type that a browser will open, it opens it, but doesn't download it. I have personally always found this behaviour a little annoying, because I send links to people specifically so that they can download files. And, to be perfectly frank, a lot of those people (non Mac users) are not really computer-literate enough to work out how to download whatever it is that has opened in their browser. You can remedy this problem by appending '?dl=1' to the end of the link before you send it to them, which forces the file to download rather than open in the browser; but I have always found having to do that manually inelegant and, since Dropbox refers itself to sending a download link to people, counterintuitive.

Now, take a file, or folder, that is not in the Public folder, right/control-click on it and you get the Get Link action. Selecting this does not copy the link to the clipboard. Instead it immediately opens the URL in your default browser. This link is of the type:
(note the 'www', rather than 'dl')

Again, if the linked file is one that Safari can open, it opens it. But regardless of file type the webpage has a floating window in the middle of it, in which you can choose to mail the link, or post it to Facebook or Twitter. There is also a button 'Copy link to this page'. That does copy the link to the clipboard. I can't quite understand why it couldn't have been copied straight to the clipboard in the first place, which would give you the link you want to send without having to go to the browser and grab it from there.

The good thing about sending this type of link to someone is that when they open it they get a webpage with a full dialogue. If they do just want to view the file in their browser that happens, as usual, automatically. But they also see a big, clear download button, regardless of whether the file is openable or not.

The other advantage is that you can send a link to a folder, which results in a webpage that displays the files within the folder, including a gallery of thumbnails if they are images or videos. I can see this being more user-friendly than receiving an email with a whole bunch of nasty looking URLs!

Hope this helps to explain the pros and cons of the two methods of sharing Dropbox content.

Kevan in the UK
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-18 09:32
There are definitely pros and cons to both in different situations - the problem is only that the shared file links don't have all the features of the Public folder links. As long as the Public folder remains available, it shouldn't be an issue though.
Minus van Baalen  2012-07-19 04:09
What I don't like about the new scheme is that apparently _all_ my files have become accessible to anyone. Has anyone looked into that? The philosophy of Photos and Public folders being accessible is perfectly acceptable to me, but even if I do not put state secrets in my DropBox there are things I put there of which I would not like it if others looked at them...
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2012-07-19 10:27
Are you thinking of your files as being accessible to anyone because a "shared file" link could exist? I'm not sure that one implies the other. Once you share a particular file, it does become accessible, but only to people with the URL.
Minus van Baalen  2012-07-19 17:39
Yes, that's it. Of course these URLs cannot be guessed, and I suppose whacking has little chance either, but nevertheless, in principle the link is there. Or isn't it, and does it need to be created first (by selecting the menu item or clicking the button on the web page)? In other words is the link really created or only revealed?