Google, back in 2004, began an endeavor to index the contents of an enormous number of books through its search engine, so that google users would be able to full text search books that were otherwise unpublished on the internet. Under U.S. Copyright law, books that were published before the 1920's (and certain texts published after that time that did not comply with the renewal requirements and were not saved by the Copyright Act of 1976) are in the public domain and can be freely copied without the need of prior consent or the paying of royalties to the author or his/her estate. Hence, you can find a copy of Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on google's book search, because Mr. Gibbon originally wrote the manuscript well before the earliest date that the book could be protected by current U.S. Copyright law. Of course, what got google into trouble was not long dead authors but very alive ones (or ones whose estate or a third party owned a valid copyright to the work), which led to a lawsuit against google in federal court in 2005 by several named plaintiffs and an association, the Author's Guild, who represents over 8,000 other authors.
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