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Google Inc. can proceed with its digital library of millions of books without paying their authors, a U.S. appeals court said, ruling the project a “fair use” of published material under copyright law.

A three-judge panel of the New York-based court said Friday that Google’s purpose of helping people locate books and view excerpts online is legal. The ruling promises to help Mountain View, California-based Google retain its dominance in Web searches. The court also approved Google’s Library Project, which provides digital copies of books for participating research libraries.

Google has scanned more than 20 million books since 2004 without the permission of the authors. The company allows users to search for specific terms and provides excerpts and links to where people can buy or borrow a book.

The Authors Guild, argued the Google project is “quintessentially commercial in nature” and basically wants to advance the company’s business interests. The group said Google Books violates authors’ rights to control their works. The guild may ask the Supreme Court to consider the case.

The appeals court ruled that Google Books is fair use despite the company’s commercial motivation.

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