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An Iraqi pirate prefers it offshore

Anas Malik had national pride in mind when he formed his software-selling firm. But he lives elsewhere.

May 14, 2008|Tina Susman and Mohammed Rasheed | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — He is everywhere but nowhere, an unseen geek whose skills as a software pirate are so impressive that others are now pirating his work.

Posters and pamphlets promoting his latest DVD, Anas08, hang in shop windows and flap in the breeze on vendors' tables wherever computer equipment is sold in Baghdad.

Looking for a new version of Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office or an online edition of the Koran, complete with English translation and an index to topics and verses? They're all on the Anas08 disc, available for about $3, compared with the thousands of dollars it would cost to buy the 390 programs individually through authorized dealers.

Anas09 will have even more programs, said the creator, whom Iraqis know only as Anas but whose full name is Anas Malik.

In some ways, Malik is just the sort of entrepreneur the Americans hoped would emerge in Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein. Malik, 34, took his skills and interests and turned them into a thriving business run by an Iraqi, for Iraqis.

"I'm doing it for the money, but also I wanted something with an Iraqi name that would be famous and help people, and be made by an Iraqi," said Malik, who sees himself as a proud patriot and an ambassador of sorts for his country. The posters and manuals he produces to advertise Anas08 feature "Iraq-Baghdad" in large lettering, so nobody can claim the product is non-Iraqi.

But Malik also is a symbol of how hopes have been derailed since Hussein's overthrow five years ago. Malik left Iraq in early 2007 because of the violence plaguing the country and lives with his wife and two children in Syria. He makes good money, but he doesn't spend it in Iraq and has no intention of returning as long as it remains dangerous. His business, built on dodging copyright restrictions designed to protect producers of software programs, is an example of Iraqis working around the system to survive.

This is especially evident in the telecommunications industry, which exploded in 2003 as Iraqis got their first taste of unfettered Internet access and cellphones. The government-run State Company for Internet Services says 250,000 Iraqis subscribe to Internet service, but an American advisor to the Ministry of Communications says the actual number is probably about 12 million.

Most people, the advisor said, use services set up by neighborhood vendors. The state can't keep up with demand, so private entrepreneurs are taking over by purchasing Internet service and reselling it to others using cheap wireless routers that began flooding in after the country's borders opened.

"It's completely uncontrolled. It's a free market blowing in," said the advisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with State Department regulations.

Even employees in the state-run Internet company are using pirated services, he said, describing one Iraqi colleague who gets Internet access from a neighbor who can't read or write but knows how to configure a router.

Just as Iraqis are turning to pirates to go online, they also are turning to them for the programs needed to function there. So are a lot of non-Iraqis.

"If I want to buy something, I can pay $300 for Microsoft PowerPoint, or I can ask one of my Iraqi colleagues to buy it for $10 in Baghdad," the advisor said.

As long as there are no laws here governing copyright infringement, it is virtually impossible to stop the trend. A U.S. Embassy official said copyright protection wasn't a high priority as long as the U.S. remained preoccupied with Iraq's political and security problems.

That's good news for Malik, whose customers include distributors in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Algeria and Lebanon.

Like many of Iraq's young telecom entrepreneurs, Malik stumbled into the business on the heels of Hussein's downfall. Before the war, he worked as a video editor. His subjects ranged from weddings to business conferences, and he taught himself to search the Internet for pirated versions of the photo- and video-editing software that was too expensive to buy directly.

By 2004, he had become so proficient that friends in Iraq's nascent telecom industry suggested he start compiling programs onto discs and selling them.

"I liked the idea, so I started doing it," Malik said. The first collection, Anas01, had 10 programs.

After the February 2006 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra, north of Baghdad, business in Iraq began to collapse. People in the computer industry were concentrated along the streets surrounding Baghdad's Technology University, and they were highly visible, easy targets. Kidnappings and killings were rife, so Malik joined hundreds of thousands of other educated young Iraqis and left the country.

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