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.