How to Use the clone Method to Create a Shallow Copy in Java

By Doug Lowe

The clone method in Java manually creates a copy of the original object and returns it. In many cases, this is the easiest way to create a clone. But what if your class has a hundred or more fields that need to be duplicated?

The chance of forgetting to copy one of the fields is high, and if you add a field to the class later on, you may forget to modify the clone method to include the new field. Fortunately, you can solve this problem by using the clone method of the Object class directly in your own clone method.

The clone method of the Object class can automatically create a copy of your object that contains duplicates of all the fields that are primitive types (such as int and double), as well as copies of immutable reference types — most notably, strings. So if all the fields in your class are either primitives or strings, you can use the clone method provided by the Object class to clone your class.

This type of clone is known as a shallow copy.

To call the clone method from your own clone method, just specify super.clone(). Before you can do that, however, you must do two things:

  • Declare that the class supports the Cloneable interface. The Cloneable interface is a tagging interface that doesn’t provide any methods. It simply marks a class as being appropriate for cloning.

  • Enclose the call to super.clone() in a try/catch statement that catches the exception CloneNotSupportedException. This exception is thrown if you try to call clone on a class that doesn’t implement the Cloneable interface. Provided that you implement Cloneable, this exception won’t ever happen, but because CloneNotSupportedException is a checked exception, you must catch it.

Here’s an example of an Employee class with a clone method that uses super.clone() to clone itself:

class Employee implements Cloneable
 // Fields and methods omitted...
 public Object clone()
  Employee emp;
   emp = (Employee) super.clone();
  catch (CloneNotSupportedException e)
   return null; // will never happen
  return emp;

Notice that this method doesn’t have to be aware of any of the fields declared in the Employee class. This clone method, however, works only for classes whose fields are all either primitive types or immutable objects such as strings.