Notes from Mexico City: Software Piracy as a Measure of Societal Progress

by Joshua Heller


I love Latin America. I’m not sure if it’s the food, the people, the culture or its vibrant collection of knockoffs.

I’m also not sure why I’m so passionate about fake things. Maybe it’s the mockery of consumer capitalism, or the satisfaction of the common man owning something he could never afford. I own a fake Adidas jumpsuit from La Paz. A pair of Phony (brand) headphones from Bogota. And a copy of Avatar filmed during a 3D screening.

And so I was delighted the other week, when I went to Mexico City for the sixteenth time.

I spent my time in the largest city in the Americas eating gourmet Mexican cuisine, discovering clandestine mezcalerias, cheerfully walking along the wide paseos.

Mexico City is definitely not as scary as you think it is. The taxi cab kidnappings and narco-executions-many of which are taking place further to the north-are eclipsed in Mexico City by a more ubiquitous crime… the crime against intellectual property.

Around the corner from Palacio Bellas Artes, Mexico City’s most revered cultural institution, merchants line the street to sell less esteemed populist art.

Vendors have hawked MP3 CDs and DVDs at this intersection for years, but on this trip I witnessed something new. For the first time, people were selling counterfeit software.

“¡Compra! ¡Compra! ¡Encarta! ¡Windows Vista! ¡Fotoshop!”

The corner of Lazaro Cardenas and Uruguay is the epicenter of the counterfeit consumer electronics sector of Colonia Centro Historico. It’s east of the light fixture district, and just past the blender repair zone. Here you can purchase any program that you’d ever want to torrent for fewer than 60 pesos.

I’m not really sure what a pirated copy of “YouTube” looks like, but these men with binders full of PC software make a living selling these products to passers-by.


This industry says a lot about Mexican use of technology.

For at least one thing, as software pirates become more visible on the street, we can assume that more people have computers in their homes.

A government study concludes that home computer ownership has increased from 18.6% in 2005 to 26.8% in 2009. Not all PC owners will buy their software on the street, but many can only afford to buy from the piratas.

Some might be historically economically disadvantaged, and/or others are likely too young to have a disposable income, since 70.5% of home computer users are between the ages of 12–17.

Many of those kids are playing World of Warcraft, though I suspect some are cultivating something more substantial than hit points.

Vendors hawk hundreds of programs that fuel the 21st century’s learning explosion. Pirated titles like Corel Draw, AutoCad, and Fruityloops make me wonder if we’ll see a surge of graphic designers, architects and musicians. When more people have access to technology, more people have access to knowledge and platforms for innovation.

Maybe piracy can even stimulate America’s so-called “Creativity Crisis.”

Though I didn’t have use for a pirated copy of ¡Aprende Ingles! I did leave Mexico with something to add to my counterfeit collection: this fake torta.

Joshua Heller knows that Oaxaca is the new Bushwick. He was just in New York but now he’s in L.A.!