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Selling a Mac: What Version of Mac OS X Can You Include?

by Adam C. Engst

TidBITS reader Scott Maxwell asked for my advice surrounding selling or giving away an old Mac, with regard to the version of Mac OS X installed. In Scott’s case, he wanted to give an old MacBook to a relative. Scott didn’t remember what the MacBook came with originally, but it’s currently running Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard and is compatible with 10.7 Lion, but not 10.8 Mountain Lion. Since Scott’s relative wanted to be able to use iCloud, an upgrade from Snow Leopard to Lion was necessary, but Lion is no longer available in the Mac App Store.

I’ll go through the legalities in a bit, but the simple answer in this case is that you can still buy Lion from Apple, although the process is a bit more involved.

How to Get OS X 10.7 Lion Installed -- First, you must call Apple at 800-MY-APPLE (800-692-7753) and work your way through the automated system until you can talk to a representative. (After getting frustrated with the first few directions, I pushed 0 and # a few times until the phonebot threw up its hands and transferred me to a real person.) You can then place an order for OS X 10.7 Lion for $19.99, and within 3 business days, Apple will send you the necessary Mac App Store redemption codes via email. To download and install Lion, you must be running 10.6.8, so if your Mac is running 10.5 Leopard or 10.4 Tiger, you may need to drop another $19.99 on Snow Leopard, which Apple still sells on DVD.

To save the time and expense of upgrading to Snow Leopard just to get to Lion, you can try an unsupported method of upgrading from Tiger or Leopard to Lion explained in Joe Kissell’s “Take Control of Upgrading to Lion.” Follow these steps:

  1. Start your Mac normally from your old (Tiger or Leopard) system.

  2. Make sure you’re logged in as an administrator. (If you’re not sure, open the Accounts pane of System Preferences. If the account under which you’re currently logged in has the word “Admin” under it, you’re good to go.)

  3. Open Terminal (in /Applications/Utilities) and enter this, followed by pressing the Return key:

    sudo nano /System/Library/CoreServices/SystemVersion.plist

  4. When prompted, enter your administrator password.

  5. Use the arrow keys to move the cursor down to the last <string> entry (the third-from-last line). Replace the current version (for example, 10.4.11 or 10.5.8) with 10.6.8.

  6. Press Control-X to quit the text editor, and press Y when asked if you want to save the modified buffer. Then you can quit Terminal.

Now you can boot from a volume containing Snow Leopard or Lion and follow the normal steps for an in-place upgrade; when the Lion installer prompts for a destination, select the specially modified volume.

(As an aside, if you have purchased Lion from the Mac App Store and subsequently upgraded to Mountain Lion, you can still download a copy of Lion from your Purchases list. It shows up normally for me, but if it’s hidden for you, choose Store > View My Account, then click View Hidden Purchases and the Unhide button. Once you have it, you can use Recovery Disk Assistant to create an external Recovery volume that you can boot from to reinstall Lion.)

The Fine Print -- So why is all this necessary? Is there really anything wrong with just wiping a Mac you’re going to give away and installing a fresh copy of the latest version of OS X it can run? I won’t tell anyone if you do, but Apple’s legal beagles have anticipated that you might want to do this and have explicitly forbidden it in the Software License Agreement.

To summarize, you can sell or give away a Mac with the version of Mac OS X that came pre-installed on it. If you bought 10.6 Snow Leopard on its own, you can sell that on its own. But if you purchased your license to Lion or Mountain Lion through the Mac App Store, it is not transferable and must be removed before you sell or give the Mac away. And don’t think that getting Lion on a USB drive is a workaround; Apple considers it equally as non-transferable as a Mac App Store version.

Here’s the text for each of the last three versions of Mac OS X:

10.6 Snow Leopard

3) Transfer. You may not rent, lease, lend, sell, redistribute or sublicense the Apple Software. Subject to the restrictions set forth below, you may, however, make a one-time permanent transfer of all of your license rights to the Apple Software (in its original form as provided by Apple) to another party, provided that: (a) the transfer must include all of the Apple Software, including all its component parts (excluding Apple Boot ROM code and firmware), original media, printed materials and this License; (b) you do not retain any copies of the Apple Software, full or partial, including copies stored on a computer or other storage device; and (c) the party receiving the Apple Software reads and agrees to accept the terms and conditions of this License. You may not rent, lease, lend, redistribute, sublicense or transfer any Apple Software that has been modified or replaced under Section 2H above. All components of the Apple Software are provided as part of a bundle and may not be separated from the bundle and distributed as standalone applications. Apple Software provided with a particular Apple-branded hardware product may not run on other models of Apple-branded hardware.

10.7 Lion

3) Transfer.

A. If you obtained the Apple Software preinstalled on Apple-branded hardware, you may make a one-time permanent transfer of all of your license rights to the Apple Software (in its original form as provided by Apple) to another party, provided that: (i) the Apple Software is transferred together with your Apple-branded hardware; (ii) the transfer must include all of the Apple Software, including all its component parts, printed materials and this License; (iii) you do not retain any copies of the Apple Software, full or partial, including copies stored on a computer or other storage device; and (iv) the party receiving the Apple Software reads and agrees to accept the terms and conditions of this License. For purposes of this License, if Apple provides an update (e.g., version 10.7 to 10.7.1) to the Apple Software, the update is considered part of the Apple Software and may not be transferred separately from the pre- update version of the Apple Software.

B. If you obtained your license to the Apple Software from the Mac App Store or on Apple-branded physical media, it is not transferable. If you sell your Apple-branded hardware to a third party, you must remove the Apple Software from the Apple-branded hardware before doing so, and you may restore your system to the version of the Apple operating system software that originally came with your Apple hardware (the “Original Apple OS”) and permanently transfer the Original Apple OS together with your Apple hardware, provided that: (i) the transfer must include all of the Original Apple OS, including all its component parts, printed materials and its license; (ii) you do not retain any copies of the Original Apple OS, full or partial, including copies stored on a computer or other storage device; and (iii) the party receiving the Original Apple OS reads and agrees to accept the terms and conditions of the Original Apple OS license.

10.8 Mountain Lion

3) Transfer.

A. If you obtained the Apple Software preinstalled on Apple-branded hardware, you may make a one-time permanent transfer of all of your license rights to the Apple Software (in its original form as provided by Apple) to another party, provided that: (i) the Apple Software is transferred together with your Apple-branded hardware; (ii) the transfer must include all of the Apple Software, including all its component parts, printed materials and this License; (iii) you do not retain any copies of the Apple Software, full or partial, including copies stored on a computer or other storage device; and (iv) the party receiving the Apple Software accepts the terms and conditions of this License. For purposes of this License, if Apple provides an update (e.g., version 10.8 to 10.8.1) to the Apple Software, the update is considered part of the Apple Software and may not be transferred separately from the pre-update version of the Apple Software.

B. If you obtained your license to the Apple Software from the Mac App Store, it is not transferable. If you sell your Apple-branded hardware to a third party, you must remove the Apple Software from the Apple-branded hardware before doing so, and you may restore your system to the version of the Apple operating system software that originally came with your Apple hardware (the “Original Apple OS”) and permanently transfer the Original Apple OS together with your Apple hardware, provided that: (i) the transfer must include all of the Original Apple OS, including all its component parts, printed materials and its license; (ii) you do not retain any copies of the Original Apple OS, full or partial, including copies stored on a computer or other storage device; and (iii) the party receiving the Original Apple OS reads and agrees to accept the terms and conditions of the Original Apple OS license.


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