Google search now gives users the option to search for book titles and download PDF files files of books out of copyright for free. However, the choice of downloads is still very limited.
The new Google Books search feature allows users to search on all books or full view books. If they choose the full view option, they can type in titles of books that are out of copyright and read them online. On some of the titles, there is a download button which allows readers to download the entire scanned book.
Thinking about titles that are out of copyright are enough to stretch the imagination - even with very old books. We tried to source a copy of Herodotus' The Histories for download and could only get an online version to read. However, we could download a published commentary on the book.
We were more successful in finding some copies for download of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, including a scanned version from the Harvard College Library (which is cooperating in the project) that is obviously hundreds of years old because the English is barely recognizable.
What seems to be missing is a link to some sort of index listing all the books available for download.
It seems that in order to stay out of hot water with publishers who have reprinted versions of very old books, Google may have to tread very carefully.
Fortunately for Google and the rest of us in the English speaking world, prestigious libraries in the US and UK are squarely behind the project. However, since those libraries carry mainly copyrighted works, which is what most people want to read, the questions remain as to how Google is going to be able to make them available online without incurring the wrath of publishers and authors.
It would be nice if Google had an rss feed for books in various categories as they're added ...