Are Hackintoshes Illegal?

by Chris Howard Mar 11, 2009

Note: Apple Matters is not providing legal advice here. If you are concerned, or have additional questions please discuss this with an lawyer. 

After last week's article about possibly building a hackintosh, I had the unsettling thought of doing something illegal. I usually avoid illegal behaviour, especially pirating software, music and movies, as that is depriving someone of their legally entitled income. But who is missing out if I build a hackintosh for my personal use?

As I want to focus on on the issues of you building your own hackintosh, I'm not about to discuss the Pystar situation, short of saying, if it simply sold an OS X ready computer, Apple wouldn't have much of a case. If you are interested in that argument, there is a very good discussion on the Pystar case over at OSNews.

If I build a hackintosh it would be done using a purchased retail off-the-shelf version of Mac OS X. That is, the full version OS X, not any pre-installed version from a Mac. So there's no pirating or breach of copyright there.

Some folks will argue off-the-shelf Mac OS X is an upgrade version so can only be used on existing Macs, but that is not the case. Nowhere in the End User Licence (EULA) or on the packaging does it indicate that it is an upgrade version. Nor does it behave as such. For instance, an upgrade version of software would normally look for an earlier version before installing. So, whenever I buy Mac OS X off-the-shelf, no one is losing any money, least not Apple.

Apple might claim that if you build a hackintosh it loses money because you're not buying a Mac. That is flawed on two counts.

First, every retail copy of OS X sold doesn't equate to a Mac sold, and probably rarely does, as it will instead be used to upgrade an existing Mac. Over the years I've bought Panther, Tiger and Leopard without buying a new Mac. So in fact, Apple's selling of OS X encourages you not to buy a new Mac.

Second, this restriction discourages people from switching to Macs. Imagine if you're a Windows user and Apple comes out tomorrow and says "We can't and won't provide technical support, but from now on we don't care if you install OS X on any PCs that will support it." This is why Linux has garnered the success it has. It allowed people to try it out without having to buy a new computer. Although, as an unsupported machine, the hackintosh market is always going to be very limited, mainly to geeksters and nerdiacs, so it's not like it's going to massively dent the Mac market.

That said, the uptake begins with geeks and nerds. If more of them got OS X on their PCs, we might see the walls built by bigotry towards Macs break down and the flow on effect could be quite beneficial to Apple to say the least.

Software aside, is there a precedent for the restrictive licence? Do car manufacturers restrict what roads you can use you car on? Fridge makers, do they say "I'm sorry, your kitchen is too ugly, you can't use our fridge in it."? Can any manufacturer control how their product is used? "I'm sorry, your going to priz. It clearly says on our shampoo's label only to be used on blonde hair."

The astute among you will be pointing out that these are all products you buy outright, whereas software you buy a licence to use. Man, whoever came up with that scam is owed big time by the software industry!

So lets consider software. MS Office does have limitations in its EULA, but all you who are defending Apple, how would you feel if Microsoft decided to change Office's EULA so you could only use it on Microsoft branded computers? Or ditto Windows? Or maybe if MS showed some compassion and limited it to only Dell and HP?

I trust there'd be many Apploids who'd be screaming for Microsoft's binary blood to be spilled.

Apple's view
Anyone who's looked at the mess the Windows world is in because of driver and compatibility issues will understand why Apple doesn't want to go down that path. Apple would do better to turn a blind eye to hackintoshes, and to some extent it has. Hadley has not been asked to take down his articles on building an OS X netbook, and nor most others who've done the same.

Am I breaching some other hidden clause if I build a computer capable of running OS X? Apparently not, as according to research on the web, many Dell computers are already OS X compatible. (Makes you wonder if Dell is up to something.)

When all's done and dusted, you shouldn't be made to feel like a criminal because you installed OS X on a non-Apple computer, should you?

So, are hackintoshes illegal? Well, Apple would like you to think so. Technically, selling a hackintosh is illegal simply because you're selling an illegal product. But for you knocking one up in your back yard, provided you're using a legit version of OS X and only on that machine, it's not worth Apple pursuing it. So go for it! And let us know how it goes.

Note: Apple Matters is not providing legal advice here. If you are concerned, or have additional questions please discuss this with an lawyer. 


  • Yes, they are illegal.

    Apple’s business model is based on hardware, not software sales.

    The basic principle of copyright is that the people who create something have rights to control it’s profit. EULA’s are contracts designed to clarify and control the use of a particular item. This isn’t new, music has had this for ages—purchasing a record, tape or cd has never conveyed to the purchaser any rights other than to listen to the music. Apple is making the same demand for it’s OS. If you don’t want to agree, then don’t buy it and hack it on to a PC.

    Personally, I’m going to buy a netbook eventually and put Ubuntu on it, legally. Perhaps if enough Apple users did that they might take notice and decide to change. But, I doubt it.

    Just because you can do something doesn’t make it right. Aside from the law there is also the ethical issues and the question is raised, “Did my momma raise me to steal?”

    DJMW had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 6
  • The EULA does state that it’s only supposed to be installed on Apple branded hardware, so at the very least it’s breaking the license agreement.

    Here’s what I don’t understand—I keep seeing the argument that the retail version of Mac OS X is intended to be installed on a Mac you already own—as stated in the article, that does result in less hardware sales.

    What’s the financial difference to Apple if I buy Retail Leopard and install it on an PC versus installing it on an ancient G4 that’s been collecting dust in my garage? Assuming I do my homework, once it’s up and running the OS X experience is going to be a whole lot better if I install it on more modern hardware… and Apple gains a sale.

    What’s better for Apple—spending $1300 on a Core i7 PC and running Windows or—assuming the user is technically capable—custom building a $1300 Hackintosh and buying retail Leopard, retail iLife, retail iWork (or the box set that includes all)?

    As a Mac user, I’d rather that those capable pick option number 2.

    MacNook had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 3
  • It is illegal. OS X exists to sell Macs and to keep current customers happy. It is obviously worth far more than $129; it’s effectively a loss leader. In the aggregate, hackinoshes deprive Apple of sales, and at the very least, it causes Apple to sell at a loss. Even if it were legal, it would be killing the goose that laid the golden egg. All the good things we enjoy from Apple come from their business model. If you destroy that, you ruin it for everyone.

    Microsoft is not a good example of anything, remember? OEM versions of Office and Windows are tied to the hardware. Microsoft has draconian licensing. If Apple starts selling OS X as a separate product, we’ll end up with license codes, validation problems, constant updates to support HP, Dell, Hamilton Beach, and whatever else; and it will bring about an Apple equivalent of Windows Genuine Disadvantage. What a dandy world your hackintosh will create for us.

    If you want to put a Unixy operating system on an Intel computer, or you’d like to build your own dream machine, use Linux. If Linux is such the paragon you make it out to be, it should be your first choice anyway.

    Don’t rape OS X and ruin it for the rest of us.

    Hugmup had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 40
  • As far as being illegal. I’m always reminded that laws change. And this one will in time.

    It was once illegal to move your songs from iTunes or play it on anyhing but an iPod. But due to pressure and time. All music has lost those restrictions.

    The same will occur with OSX and iPhone Carrier Contracts and exclusive Music releases at certain retailers. These are just momentary marketing distortions. They will end.

    mcloki had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 25
  • It’s telling to me that the two “it’s illegal” arguments back up that statement with “it’s bad for Apple.”  Well, those two thoughts are not the same thing, nor does one follow the other.

    The legality of the EULA is very shaky.  Some courts uphold it, some don’t.  But it’s not something you’re going to go to jail for or even get fined.  It’s subject to contract law, not criminal law.  It’s handled in civil court and you would have to be sued by Apple for installing OS X on your netbook, which isn’t going to happen.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Yes, technically, it’s illegal (breaking the EULA), but IS it better for Apple? IMO that’s the real question.

    I think it’s better for Apple for someone to be running Leopard that would otherwise have purchased a Windows solution.

    I think the real question is whether the possibility of the Hackintosh is bringing in more business (Windows users experimenting and eventually becoming Mac users) or taking away more Apple hardware purchasers (it’s hard to ignore the cost vs. performance if you’re technically capable of building a Hackintosh.) I know an awful lot of Mac users that wanted an Apple Minitower, but ended up building a Hackintosh that outperforms the lowest-end Mac Pro (8 core) or just about outperforms for far far less.

    I know I’ve been waiting and hoping for a Mac Quad Core Minitower solution for around $1500. Instead, I’ll be building a machine for under $1400 that outperforms and embarrassingly outperforms the Mac Pro 8 core—Apple has not delivered. The mini doesn’t cut it.
    ... and I know I’m not the only one.

    MacNook had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 3
  • Edit to above—
    “that outperforms and embarrassingly outperforms”
    should have said
    “that outperforms and embarrassingly outspecs”

    MacNook had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 3
  • I’m with Beeb - show me the law that states that I am a criminal if I run a piece of software or an operating system and do not follow the EULA. Surely it’s simply a breach of contract which means Apple are not required to uphold their side of the EULA?

    Kind of like when you promise not to browse for porn at work in you employment contract - while it can be used to fire you, it’s actually there to show that you agreed not to and therefore your employers are not legally responsible for your actions.

    In the same way, breaching the EULA means that you are not due any support and you have no legal rights should the software/OS trash your hard disk and lose all your data, or if a later update breaks the OS.

    How that equates to illegal, I don’t know.

    (Of course, using a cracked version of the software/OS is breaking the law)

    evilcat had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 66
  • The problem with EULAs as contracts is the implied consent from opening the product.  It’s a nebulous and grey area of contract law.  So while it may or may not be “illegal,” that word alone has little meaning here.  Going 56 in a 55mph zone is technically illegal.  So what? 

    Like Macnook says, it’s hardly the real issue.  It’s a dodge by Apple and by the fanboys to avoid the subject of Apple’s overpriced systems and whether or not they can truly compete against generic PC branded hardware.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Apple is very smart. They generate money faster than anyone who posts here. They knew that moving to the x86 platform was going to result in hackintosh machines with better price/performance than real Macs. They don’t care. People who hack their PCs aren’t worth chasing. Even dedicated Mac users who love Apple but want a mini-tower apparently aren’t worth the effort. We may think they’re daft, but it’s their choice.

    Apple isn’t trying to achieve 100% market penetration. They only want customers who can afford and justify paying more for a computer. Those who can’t or won’t pay a premium price aren’t worth pursuing.

    They have determined that the effort of designing, manufacturing, shipping and supporting a Mac mini-tower that only some of the hackintosh people would buy isn’t worth the sales it would generate and the disruption it would cause to their existing sales.

    The only hackintoshes that Apple cares about are the large scale operations like Psystar. Interestingly enough there are two diametrically opposed conspiracy theories about Psystar. One contends that their lawsuit is a legitimate attack on Apple by those who feel threatened (Microsoft and friends). The other theory is that Apple themselves have indirectly funded Psystar so they can get a legal ruling against all hackintosh users.

    No matter how the case is decided customers are going to lose so I truly wish Psystar and the others had never set up shop in the first place.

    Bregalad had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 14
  • “Apple is very smart. They generate money faster than anyone who posts here.”

    So do Walmart, McDonalds, and Microsoft. I fail to see the connection between making more money than any of us and intelligence.

    “No matter how the case is decided customers are going to lose so I truly wish Psystar and the others had never set up shop in the first place.”

    I disagree.  If Psystar wins, consumers get more choices in hardware without having the OS tied to the machine.  Apple’s choices here are anti-competitive, and a lack of competition is bad for consumers, however much it benefits Apple.  If Apple wins, then what will have changed?  Nothing.  The only bad news for hackintoshes would be for users trying to sell them for profit.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • The people defending Hackintoshes are dealing with moral distinctions. The problem is that they are amoral people who think that ibrcause they can get away with something then everyone should concede their right to get away with it. They don’t like the truth that their behaviors are illegal and they are stealing from Apple.

    The EULA’s are a gentleman’s agreement to use the Mac OS software in ways whicht Apple approves of. Whether or not you disagree with Apple’s decisions on this is not the point. These are not your decisions to make, since you do not own the software, but merely have a license to use it under certain terms.

    Mostly, the EULA is there to discourage commercial duplicators, so Apple is reluctant to go after the small user. But, that will change when enough Hackintoshes are made or sold. First, the gentlemanly behavior will be dispensed with. Apple will find and implement ways to tie the software with specific hardware and owners. We will be forced to verify that we own or have the rights to use the hardware. Snow Leopard 10.6 will be using 64 bit security which will make it difficult to impossible to find the information which it will be sending to Apple.

    We legitimate Macintosh users dislike this practice because it means that we will be inconvenienced because Apple needs to verify that we are not misusing their software. The amount of snooping that is possible is enormous. If you intend to misuse Apple’s software, then don’t be surprised when Apple fights back. Your violation of Apple’s rights means the end to our privacy.

    UrbanBard had this to say on Mar 11, 2009 Posts: 111
  • “They don’t like the truth that their behaviors are illegal and they are stealing from Apple.”

    We’re talking about people who PAY Apple for their software and PAY for the hardware.  Comparing that to “stealing” is even more moronic than when the RIAA does it.  The only thing they’re doing “wrong” is violating a EULA.

    I know you’d love for it to be illegal to do something Apple doesn’t approve of, but it isn’t.  No one goes to jail or gets fined for violating a EULA.  It’s a contract, and a tenuous one at best.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Mar 12, 2009 Posts: 2220
  • Some interesting arguments from both sides, although I’m not sure all of those saying “it’s illegal” read all of my article, as they presents some justifications that I’d already argued against - and yet they haven’t tried to counter my original arguments.

    But one thing I don’t get is why those against call it stealing.

    If I pirate OS X, I have deprived Apple of income, and effectively stolen from them. If I install one copy of OS X on multiple machines, again, I am depriving Apple of money and so stealing from them.

    However, if I buy a copy of OS X and install it on a hackintosh, what have I stolen from Apple? I haven’t deprived them of income, because if I couldn’t build the hackintosh, I wouldn’t have bought OS X in the first place.

    But you’d then suggest I would have instead bought a genuine Mac.

    For many people considering a hackintosh, the answer to that is “no”. So for them, they - ironically - deprive Apple of income by not building the hackintosh.

    For those who would instead buy a genuine Mac, some will instead buy secondhand, so again Apple misses out, and others will simply put off the purchase, so again Apple misses out as they don’t upgrade as often.

    In the long run, hackintoshes are good for Apple’s business, just as long as Apple doesn’t have to support them.

    This is why they want it to be illegal, that is, they don’t want any responsibility for the support.  However, they turn a blind eye to it because they also know that long term it helps the growth of Mac marketshare.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Mar 12, 2009 Posts: 1209
  • @DJMW, sometimes the only way to fight a draconian law is to behave unlawfully. For instance, one reason the record labels backed off on DRM is because they saw that people hated it and were being driven to pirate music because of it and/or unlawfully circumventing it.  Another example, it used to be illegal for some groups of people to meet in public, so they did anyway until the law was changed.

    My momma didn’t raise me to steal, but she did raise me to fight against what is wrong, such as the outdated licensing restrictions of OS X.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Mar 12, 2009 Posts: 1209
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