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,
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 US-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 is also 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 adviser to the Ministry of Communications says the actual number is probably about 12 million.
Most people, the adviser 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 adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity in keeping with US 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 many 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 adviser said.
As long as there are no laws here governing copyright infringement, it is virtually impossible to stop the trend. A US Embassy official said copyright protection wasn't a high priority as long as the United States 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.
Working in Syria has enabled Malik to expand his business. He can easily ship things from Syria to other countries in the region without the security issues he faced in Iraq. He can also use his Syrian debit card to subscribe to websites that allow him to download software whose protection devices have been disabled or cracked. Most of the websites won't accept Iraqi bank cards.