Mac Musings

Is DRM in Mac OS X Anything to Fear?

- 2008.01.08 - Tip Jar

There's been a huge buzz in the past week about an Apple patent application for "Run-Time Code Injection To Perform Checks", which many liken to Microsoft's Windows Genuine Advantage program and speculate could result in Mac OS X and Apple apps including the kind of serialization and headaches that Windows users are familiar with.

Reading about this technology, it appears that this patent covers a mechanism whereby the operating system polls the computer's firmware every so often to verify that it is running on authorized hardware.

The Unlocked Mac OS

Throughout the history of the Mac, and unlike the highly protected Lisa, the Mac operating system has never been copy protected. From System 1.0 through 7.0.1, Apple even allowed stores and users to freely copy their Mac OS system floppies for others. There was no cost for operating system updates unless you wanted to buy a shrink wrapped package.

That changed with Macintosh System 7.1, which included some licensed third-party applications. Because of them, System 7.1 could not be distributed for free, and to this date Apple has never made it a free download, unlike System 6.0.x, 7.0.x, and 7.5.x. (Those with ancient Macs can find download links for these on our Classic Mac OS Downloads and Updates page.)

No version of the Mac OS since then has come to market without a price tag, although Apple did eventually make the System 7.5.3 download and the 7.5.5 update free.

Unlike Microsoft Windows and many applications, the consumer version of the Mac OS has never required the user to type in a serial number or register with Apple. (Mac OS X Server requires a serial number so it knows how many users it's licensed for, and when you boot into a clean OS X install, it does ask you to register with Apple, although you're not required to do so.)

Every copy of the Mac OS allows unlimited installs, although the OS license generally limits you to a single user and/or computer or, in the case of the family pack, up to five computers in the same household.

Another Reason for DRM in the OS

Apple is in a touch spot right now. After switching the entire Macintosh line from PowerPC to Intel CPUs in 2006, it's become possible to install Mac OS X on non-Apple x86 computers. Read that as "Windows computers".

Just as it's possible to run Windows on Intel-based Macs using Boot Camp or virtualization, it's possible to hack OS X and run it on a lot of Windows computers. There's even speculation that we'll see virtualization software for Windows and Linux that will allow users to run a virtual Mac alongside those operating systems. It should be every bit as doable as running Windows or Linux virtualized on the Mac.

Apple doesn't support the Mac OS on non-Apple hardware and makes a lot of money selling Macintosh computers. While it definitely makes some money from each copy of OS X sold, it makes more money from each computer sold. So while every "Hackintosh" helps Apple's bottom line a bit, it doesn't help nearly as much as selling a Macintosh.

The Mac OS license covers Apple hardware - only Apple hardware. Hacked installers and virtualization let users violate the terms of that license, which most of us don't consider a bad thing from a user's perspective. After all, if Apple won't build the tablet, subnotebook, or modular desktop Mac we want, why shouldn't we be allowed to buy a copy of OS X and install it on the hardware we want?

After all, Mac OS X can run on non-Apple hardware. All you have to do is hack it a bit.

Gotcha!

Integrating DRM throughout the Mac OS needn't be anything as insidious as Windows Genuine Advantage. It could be Apple's way of enforcing the license terms. By checking the computer's firmware every few minutes, it could determine whether it's running on genuine Macintosh hardware or not.

As we've discovered with Leopard, it's not that difficult to fool the installer so Mac OS X 10.5 will install on most sub-867 MHz G4 Macs. And once you have Leopard installed on a hard drive, it can be cloned or moved to an "unsupported" Mac, where it can work with less than the 512 MB Apple suggests and the installer enforces.

With DRM inside OS X, Apple has the potential to have the operating system enforce the fact that the license is only for Apple hardware without adding all the headaches of serial numbers, registration, connecting to apple.com for license verification, etc. that helps make Windows such a nuisance. (Has anyone at Microsoft tried to type in one of those loooooong serial numbers? It's not easy to do that without one or two mistakes sneaking in.)

I don't think DRM in OS X need be anything we Mac users fear. If it's nothing more than a way of making sure that it's running on Apple hardware, we'll still have an operating system that can be copied, cloned, moved between Macs, and so forth while refusing to run on non-Apple hardware or in virtualized environments.

Time will tell if and how Apple decided to implement this, but based on the company's history, I don't see this as insidious.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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