The Ethics Behind the Hackintosh Computer (And Other Things)

The Ethics Behind the Hackintosh Computer (And Other Things)Last week, my fellow LockerGnome writer Matt Ryan discussed the legality of Hackintosh computers. That is, non-Apple-branded computers that run OS X. From the community’s reaction, it appears to be a very sensitive topic for some of our readers.

While Matt was working on his article, once in a while he would bring the topic up in our private chat. It became clear that not only should the legal aspect of Hackintoshes be considered, but ethics as well. I’m setting something straight right now, however: What follows is completely my own opinion. This article’s purpose is to encourage discussion on this topic. If you think I’m dead wrong, go ahead and tell me and the world your views.

To be perfectly clear, the courts don’t look fondly on Hackintoshes, at least in the cases they have dealt with in the past (e.g., Psystar). However, this article isn’t about legality, it’s about ethics. Today we are going to look at what the law should say versus what it says presently.

Why can I say this so confidently, though? To put it simply, ethics are more important than the law (at least in the United States). Laws are defined by the ethics of the lawmakers doing the bill writing and voting. Ideally, laws are therefore defined by the ethics of the people who elected those lawmakers into office (i.e., the population as a whole). If laws were valued more highly than ethics, there would be no Constitution, no Supreme Court, and most likely no United States (at least as we know it).

Moving on to the topic at hand: Hackintoshes. In Matt’s article, he concluded that Hackintoshes are illegal on the grounds that you are breaking Apple’s EULA, which states:

The Apple software (including Boot ROM code), any third party software, documentation, interfaces, content, fonts and any data accompanying this License whether preinstalled on Apple-branded hardware, on disk, in read only memory, on any other media or in any other form (collectively the “Apple Software”) are licensed, not sold, to you by Apple Inc. (“Apple”) for use only under the terms of this License. Apple and/or Apple’s licensors retain ownership of the Apple Software itself and reserve all rights not expressly granted to you.

So, according to Apple’s EULA, you don’t own the software. Fair enough, I suppose, as any software that isn’t public domain is licensed in some shape or form. As an open source supporter myself, I fully support Apple’s rights to license its software under its terms. That is, of course, as long as those terms are sane and ethical (at least to the point where they don’t sound absolutely tyrannical). Further down in the EULA:

The grants set forth in this License do not permit you to, and you agree not to, install, use or run the Apple Software on any non-Apple-branded computer, or to enable others to do so.

Here’s where the EULA gets troubling (and from where the Hackintosh controversy stems). You are prohibited (by Apple) from installing or running OS X on any machine that doesn’t have Apple’s name on it. This is incredibly controversial, as who is Apple to say what you can and can’t do with your hardware? If you own your computer, why shouldn’t you be able to install whatever software you are capable of installing on it, given you are following the sensible sections of that software’s license? Also, to put on my amateur lawyer cap for a moment, the bit that states that you may not “enable others to [run OS X on non-Apple-branded computers]” is too insane for me to believe that it can actually be upheld in court. If I build a custom computer that’s capable of having OS X installed, am I violating Apple’s EULA?

Returning to the Psystar case — which the company lost on the grounds that it violated Apple’s EULA — I’m surprised one point was not made clear: Psystar was never in a situation in which it had to agree to Apple’s EULA. It bundled OS X with the computers it sold, never installing it beforehand. Psystar left it up to the consumer to decide if they wanted to break the EULA by installing OS X, so the company never broke the law itself. Of course, I’m not surprised that case ended the way it did; these sorts of things usually end up in favor of the person with the most amount of cash.

It’s funny, but these ethics and legalities all sound pretty similar and hard to distinguish, don’t they? Perhaps that’s the issue, though. While the line of law is clear on paper, when the actual discussion gets going it can be difficult to see why it’s written the way it is when the viewpoints of so many other voices start to make the law sound, well, evil.

It’s Not Just Hackintoshes

There are similar cases in the technology world where ethics take a turn in the hot seat. Coming back to the idea that you own your device, plenty of consumers have complained about locked bootloaders, and now even Microsoft plans to lock people out of UEFI’s “custom mode” on upcoming Windows 8 ARM tablets. Android device owners have long complained about manufacturers like HTC and Motorola locking down their bootloaders, preventing the installing of third-party “ROMs.” These things should be granted easily as a right to consumers, not a privilege. Once again, if you spend your money on a device, it’s yours, and you should be able to do whatever you please with it (even if that means sacrificing your warranty coverage, but at least you have the freedom to do what you want).

That’s About It

Ethics is a tricky subject, primarily because it’s almost always subjective. One person’s opinion on this topic will be different from another person’s opinion. That is why I’m making a point to write this article: I want the discussion to explicitly target the ethics behind things like building and running a Hackintosh, rather than examining it from a purely legal standpoint. Remember that the law can only go so far, so don’t forget to voice your opinions, take a stand, and hold your ground to the best of your ability.

CC licensed Flickr image above shared by micaeltattoo.

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  • http://twitter.com/PHactotum Perry Harris

    Is it ethical to build a computer that it is possible to install OSX on? Yes, Apple doesn’t own non Apple hardware.  

    Is it ethical to install OSX on non-Apple branded hardware?  No.  Wether we want the License to read that we can or can’t isn’t an ethical issue.  It is up to the owner of the software to license it in the way he/she/it feels best supports their business model.  We as the licensee have the ethical duty to adhere to the license that we sign off on.
    Now, this isn’t to say that a license can un-ethical clauses in it.  A clause that states that if you install this software, you agree to kill 9 dogs and 6 cats over the course of a month, would be un-ethical.  Apple’s clause in its license that says only install it on Apple hardware, is ethical, even if we don’t want that clause in there for our own purposes.  

    Yes, we may own the hardware, but we only get to use the license provided the owner allows us to.

    Now, in the case of Android, and the boot loaders.  There they are preventing us from using the hardware, that we own, in the way that we want to.  We own the hardware, provided Verizon, or AT&T doesn’t own portions of it via subsidies and the two year contract.  Since we own the hardware, we should be able to install whatever we want on the hardware.  Now this doesn’t mean, that after we install our own custom hardware that we can still connect to our providers network.  They can say that in order to connect to their network, you need to be running software vetted and approved by them.  

  • http://twitter.com/PHactotum Perry Harris

    Is it ethical to build a computer that it is possible to install OSX on? Yes, Apple doesn’t own non Apple hardware.  

    Is it ethical to install OSX on non-Apple branded hardware?  No.  Wether we want the License to read that we can or can’t isn’t an ethical issue.  It is up to the owner of the software to license it in the way he/she/it feels best supports their business model.  We as the licensee have the ethical duty to adhere to the license that we sign off on.
    Now, this isn’t to say that a license can un-ethical clauses in it.  A clause that states that if you install this software, you agree to kill 9 dogs and 6 cats over the course of a month, would be un-ethical.  Apple’s clause in its license that says only install it on Apple hardware, is ethical, even if we don’t want that clause in there for our own purposes.  

    Yes, we may own the hardware, but we only get to use the license provided the owner allows us to.

    Now, in the case of Android, and the boot loaders.  There they are preventing us from using the hardware, that we own, in the way that we want to.  We own the hardware, provided Verizon, or AT&T doesn’t own portions of it via subsidies and the two year contract.  Since we own the hardware, we should be able to install whatever we want on the hardware.  Now this doesn’t mean, that after we install our own custom hardware that we can still connect to our providers network.  They can say that in order to connect to their network, you need to be running software vetted and approved by them.  

  • http://twitter.com/PHactotum Perry Harris

    Is it ethical to build a computer that it is possible to install OSX on? Yes, Apple doesn’t own non Apple hardware.  

    Is it ethical to install OSX on non-Apple branded hardware?  No.  Wether we want the License to read that we can or can’t isn’t an ethical issue.  It is up to the owner of the software to license it in the way he/she/it feels best supports their business model.  We as the licensee have the ethical duty to adhere to the license that we sign off on.
    Now, this isn’t to say that a license can un-ethical clauses in it.  A clause that states that if you install this software, you agree to kill 9 dogs and 6 cats over the course of a month, would be un-ethical.  Apple’s clause in its license that says only install it on Apple hardware, is ethical, even if we don’t want that clause in there for our own purposes.  

    Yes, we may own the hardware, but we only get to use the license provided the owner allows us to.

    Now, in the case of Android, and the boot loaders.  There they are preventing us from using the hardware, that we own, in the way that we want to.  We own the hardware, provided Verizon, or AT&T doesn’t own portions of it via subsidies and the two year contract.  Since we own the hardware, we should be able to install whatever we want on the hardware.  Now this doesn’t mean, that after we install our own custom hardware that we can still connect to our providers network.  They can say that in order to connect to their network, you need to be running software vetted and approved by them.  

  • Consumer2005-issues

     Psystar case : Surely they were ‘enabling’ by purchasing the software 
    & supplying this with the hardware, they enabled others so to do. IF you or the person you give them to install the software then ‘in accordance with EULA’ (as cited by you) yes you are breaking the contract with apple for supply of software.I’m not sure it’s ethical though as you have purchased software and what machine you run it on, shouldn’t matter. Monopoly comes to mind.

    • DJ

      Yes, they were “enabling” people to install it on non-Apple hardware. However they never at any point agreed not to. They were not under any obligation to abide by Apple’s rules.

  • http://twitter.com/Mrhuntjim Molnár István János

    In Romania there’s a store (macpc.ro), no joking… they sell hackintosh computers or mac-pc’s as well as apple products. They even have a showroom in Bucharest. Is it ethical or legal to sell hackintosh computers or to install os x on a non-apple machine? They say it’s legal because, some unspecified limitations by Apple in EULA in E.U. Pretty interesting… 

  • Cubbymiller

    Of course, as you well said,  “I’m not surprised that case ended the way it did; these
    sorts of things usually end up in favor of the person with the most
    amount of cash.”  It has been the same way for thousands of years, since antiquity: they can enslave us because they have more money than us. If I had invented something like that, I would not have been able to enforce such restrictive EULA. Anyone would have been able to beat me in court, because they would have better lawyers. What we need is a better, more user-friendly Linux so that we can get rid of both Windows and Mac. When one Linux distro doesn’t recognize our modem, the next one doesn’t recognize our sound card, the third one doesn’t recognize our wi-fi, and the fourth one doesn’t recognize something else, we  fall back into Windows and Mac. 

  • Cunawarit

    This is the usual dilemma of legality vs. morality, they are not the same. Laws are absolutely necessary to maintain a civilized society, but what is legal is not always moral and vise versa. 

    It would make for an interesting Venn diagram….

  • Vin Weathermon

    Forcing people to spend four times as much for Apple hardware to use the OS is ethically wrong.If you pay for hardware and you pay for software, and you can get it to work you should be left alone.   Apple is greedy and rich, and will stop at nothing to remain powerful.  Marketing is everything to Apple, and prosecution is another form of marketing.   Why feel sorry for Apple?  Many people die because of Apple manufacturing in China.   I enjoy seeing Apple suffer the same consequences as Microsoft (greed causes a karma whiplash eventually.)   Mac clones would be a welcome thing, just as clone PC’s enable people to afford a computer.  For the record, I am a Mac, iPhone, Windows AND Android user.   I like ALL these technologies for differing reasons.  But to have a stranglehold on the OS is just as wrong as it was for Microsoft in my opinion.

  • H1atus

    The crux of the matter is “What constitutes an agreement?”

    After all, ethically and lawfully speaking, its only a legal and a lawful contract if both parties
    are fully informed and fully consent to all terms at the time of transaction.

    You, the customer, buy an OSX installation from Apple, by disk or download.  You are informed that this will upgrade your Mac to OSX Lion. Grand. Are you informed at the time of purchase that they will only sell it to you if you promise to only use it on apple hardware? No.

    See, that’s the problem with the modern-day EULA. It’s an “after the purchase” agreement. In other words, the customer was not informed BEFORE they spent the money. Thats both illegal and immoral.

    Does Apple have the right to sell a product and restrict it to only Apple hardware? Yes, as long as the customer fully consents before the purchase.

    Lets draw an analogy here.

      You purchase a car from Toyota brand new. You purchase the car outright, and the title is now yours. You sit in the car and turn it on. A voice turns on and says “you must agree to only use Toyota facilities to maintain your car, please say yes to continue..”

    See, people know better, and Toyota would shortly thereafter die in the raging fire of millions of pissed off customers.

     Its very much the same with software. If the agreement is sprung on you after the purchase, its immoral and unlawful. 

    So, it morally behooves apple to state it simply to the users on the same page they buy the product. The Eula belongs on the purchasing page, not in the installation files.  

  • http://twitter.com/tsilb Kevin Connolly

    Building a Hackintosh is the only conceivable way in which Apple would ever sell me a non-mobile OS. By that logic, I’d actually be helping them. I refuse to pay double the market rate for their branded hardware, and I absolutely won’t buy a whole computer just to try an OS.

    But I’m not really motivated to do it, either. Their loss.

  • fowlesp

    Apples clause simply isn’t ethical, and shouldn’t be legal.

    When you buy a Car, the seller cannot dictate where you buy fuel (or even the grade of fuel). Conversely the petrol-store owner can’t dictate which vehicles the fuel he sells goes into – yet BOTH (car and fuel) are required to get from A-to-B

    Why is software any different?

    The answer isn’t because it needs to be. It because Apple thought it could get away with it. The sad thing is – it has…

    From what I’ve read Psystar lost the case because a transaction took place in order to bundle the OSX. It must have bought it from somewhere in order to supply it, thereby agreeing to the EULA (irrespective of whether it press “Yes” on the EULA screen)

  • Stacey Funk

    This discussion early on got hijacked by a very popular and common issue that plagues all first year Uni ethics classes, ethics and morals are not the same thing. Although your ethics or even the ethos of a nation can be informed by your/it’s moral background they are distinct codes and really easily distinguishable. Its easy to say its immoral to build or use a hackintosh because it breaks a rule based on software patent law and we are conditioned to assume that breaking laws is immoral but that doesn’t make the same act unethical simply by association. If the logic we that simple there would be no need to teach ethics in the first place. Apple and by extension all software licensing laws have passed are used and are legal but ethical? Ask by extension then if a rule is unethical, is it unethical to break or bend it? Personally I believe that ethics is a subject only looked at by business in terms of being moral and never it’s true root, they too confuse them both equally and to their own benefit.

  • http://twitter.com/fixgadget GadgetFix

    I own a dual-boot a Hackintosh system.

    Why?

    It’s simple I like having access to pretty much the complete computing experience. The Mac is worth every penny. As a consumer it is kind of hard to look at a Mac vs a PC the same way. I can’t wrap my head around the price and specs side by side. It’s a bit baffling. I get what Steve Jobs is pushing to everyone, its the experience. It feels like a pretty costly experience sometimes.

    I had to replace my MacBook Pro because it had vertical lines across the screen. Fixing it would have cost me $400+shipping just to purchase the LCD on my own and replace it; or have Apple Care charge me $900 for a new system.. 

    Lets just say I now own a Dell laptop that runs OSX Lion & Windows 7. I didn’t plan on things working out that way but they did.

    As for the MacBook Pro, I fixed it after searching for a MacBook Pro for parts on eBay. I managed to get lucky and once I fixed it I ended up re-eBaying it. :)

  • Dvon

    Quo Computer has been doing this for 3 to 4 years in Los Angeles. They sell great hardware that you can run anything you want.

  • Rick

    Only on an Apple branded computer you say? My Hackintosh is Apple branded, it has 3 Apple logos on it.

    No problems here!

  • Williamg209

    i made my sesktop and loging on look like it + sounds and icons – but still is windows

  • Pixilicious

    Currently, Apple has about 6% of the desk/lap top hardware market and since their software is tied to their hw, they are missing 94% of the market potential with their software. IF they could untie the 2, would they? Apparently not since they can but don’t. SHOULD they untie the 2? Microsoft sure said “hells to the yes” when THEY faced that decision. So why hasn’t Apple? They are idiots.

    Think of your purchase and use of the MacOS on your Hackintosh as your effort to make Apple just a little bit less idiotic. 

  • brian sherling

    I bought the first APPLE MACINTOSH back in 1985.   the CLASSIC.   then i bought the first laptop…the powerbook 140.   since then i have bought no less than 8 Apple Macintosh computers, 3 iPhones,  5 ipods, and 3 ipads.   
    well, now i want to build my own hackentosh so i can build my own CASE and enjoy the lights and options like all the rest of my PC friends.   but alas, in order to enjoy the wonderful Apple Software i have to endure the boring Eastern Block Designs.   
    i also find it puzzling that Apple back engineered the original Concept for the Macintosh when the discovered it at Parc Research.   then the brilliant idea of Bundling and Licensing.   BRILLIANT but somewhat manipulative.   I LOVE APPLE.   but right now i am enduring the same tortures of the stagnant economy and therefore cannot afford a new desktop.   ESPECIALLY considering the boring hardware design.   
    I DO NOT OWN A SINGLE PIRATED SONG….I DO NOT HAVE A SINGLE PIECE OF CRACKED SOFTWARE.    and i am going to build a hackentosh for  my own personal use and BUY the software.   does that make me unethical?   personally, i think Apple has gotten to big for comfort.   I submit, when the founding fathers signed the declaration of independence, they were committing Treason…..an outright UNETHICAL ACT….and yet, they were in fact acting upon an UNETHICAL FORM OF GOVERNMENT…..the Colonists would BUY THE LAND but payed a LICENSE TAX……you had to have BOTH to have EITHER.    
    Personally I think APPLE is the one behaving badly.   
    they claim “quality control issues” but in truth its simply commerce manipulation and MONOPOLY.    
    i have a friend who can build my hackentosh without hacking the software.   
    i feel horrible……wink

  • bnleez

    If something is illegal, what’s the point of discussing ethics? If it’s legal, then build a discussion about something being ethical or unethical. It’s hard to be ethical when it’s illegal; that is, it’s hard to build an argument using such logic. Yeah, if you are marching up to Capitol Hill trying to change the laws, perhaps you are forming an argument on some ethical code. But for most informal discussions, the counter argument will most likely be, “…yeah, but it’s illegal”.

    Ethics is subjective, and for better or for worse, requires a level of consensus; otherwise, everything would be legal. We have enough unethical problems to discuss that are in fact legal.

  • Andii

    Why can t we do what we like with our computers long as it does not infringe up on anyone. ok ,let us say I got a pair of jeans I want to make patches on them does that hurt the Jeans maker people might say that is too simplistic.

  • Andii

    Sony in Japan have build your own PC BUT IT IS JUST A MAKE UP JOB SOFT WARE IS NOT BUILD YOUR OWN .

  • Get D Faxtrate

    Apple didn’t reverse engineer anything from Xerox PARC, they purchased the code for the creation of windows, but much of the Mac — including the ‘desktop’ concept came directly from Apple.

  • Booger

    It is unfortunate that an article purportedly on the ethics of building a hackintosh makes no reference to standard ethical principles and uses a Straw Man fallacy as the core of its argument.
    It is not “controversial” that the creator of a work should have a say in what happens to it, Eddie. Even copyrights specifically enumerate that the owner has the right to not have their work performed or disseminated. If someone copied your article above and sold it with their by-line, I am sure you would be livid. It wouldn’t become “his” just because he bought a paper copy of it. Intellectual property has a long history of protections like copyrights and patents precisely to acknowledge the effort its creation entails and to ensure that the creator receives the benefits of her labor–which is why the First US Congress enshrined them in law.
    Your essay amounts to one thing: treating others as a means to your own ends, rather than as ends unto themselves. The rights of the creators of the software you want matter less to you than your desire to do with it as you please, so you choose to violate their ownership of it to suit your own ends. I recommend you buy a copy of “Ethics for the Information Age” and pay attention to the section on Kantian ethics.