Days after a beaming Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates unveiled his much-vaunted Windows Vista software at a retail price of $400 for the premium version, Latin American street vendors were hawking pirated copies for less than $10.
At a sidewalk stall in Mexico City's grimy historic center, vendor Jose Luis offloaded cut-price copies of the software that cost Microsoft $6 billion to bring to market.
The world's biggest software maker rolled out Vista in 70 countries Jan. 30, hailing it as a revolutionary digital media tool and its most important software upgrade since the ubiquitous Windows 95.
"They always say it can't be copied, but there you go," said Luis, whose stall is blocks away from where a publicity team for Windows last month formed the Vista logo with their bodies in a publicity stunt.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil, Latin America's other mega city, illegal sellers crammed the sidewalk of the Rua Santa Efigenia, the one-stop shop for all things computer, hawking Vista's Ultimate edition in Portuguese for just 15 reals ($7.20). The official version sells in Brazil for 989 reals.
A group of multinational companies last week put Brazil in fourth place among the worst countries for business piracy -- behind China, Russia and India.
About 50% of all compact discs sold in Brazil are pirated, as are around 30% of DVDs, fueling a counterfeit business worth around $30 billion a year, according to the union that represents federal tax agents.
The Business Software Alliance, which includes companies such as Apple Inc., Adobe Systems Inc., Microsoft and Symantec Corp., estimates that about 65% of software programs sold in Mexico are illegal copies.
The level of piracy in Mexico robs the industry of $525 million annually, said Kiyoshi Tsuru, the alliance's Mexico director.
Although Latin American consumers appear to be getting a bargain by buying illegal products, many features may not work, computer experts say.
"The other day, someone said to me: 'It's like leaving your son in the care of a prostitute.' Likewise I couldn't entrust my machine ... to a criminal," Tsuru said.
Police in many Latin American cities are struggling to fight violent crime and mostly turn a blind eye to what they see as minor offenses such as software pirating. Often poorly paid, police are susceptible to bribes.
The Mexican attorney general's office says it busted thousands of piracy operations in 2006. But it is fighting a losing battle.
"We've seized hundreds of [CD and DVD] burners but the industry generates enough cash to carry on," a spokesman said.