New York: Google was on Wednesday set to begin letting consumers download and print free of charge classic novels and many other, more obscure, books that are in the public domain.

Using Google's Book Search service, Web surfers hunting titles like Dante's Inferno will now be able to download PDF files of the books for later reading, to run keyword searches or to print them on paper. Up to now, the service only allowed people to read the out-of-copyright books online. Google supports the service by showing its small, keyword-generated text ads on search-results pages.

The download initiative does not include any books under copyright. For these titles, Book Search displays basic bibliographic information and, in many cases, small snippets of text surrounding a search term, unless it has permission from the publisher to show more. The company's display of snippets has riled some publishers, but Google has argued the small bites of text constitute fair use.

Google's Book Search service is the product of its Books Library Project, which is digitising books from major libraries around the world in order to make them searchable online. Its partners include the University of Michigan, Harvard University, Stanford University, Oxford University, the University of California and the New York Public Library. AP