There are a lot of people who mistakenly believe that material posted on the web is not protected by copyright. Those people will eventually end up in big trouble if they go copying things from elsewhere on the web since ignorance of the law is not considered to be an excuse and the penalty that they will receive for accidentally stealing someone else's content will be exactly the same as if they stole the content deliberately. The only thing that might save them is the fact that most people will first ask that the stolen content be removed and will only commence legal proceedings if their request is ignored.
There is no requirement that material on the web that is protected by copyright actually state that it is so protected. The onus is on the person wishing to copy the material to check whether the material that they wish to copy is covered by copyright (which in almost all cases it will be) and then to obtain the permission of the copyright owner before they make their copy.
The same copyright laws apply to material on the web as applies to all other written material such as books, magazines, newspapers etc. In all cases the person who created the material owns the copyright unless they were employed by someone else to create it for them (in which case the employer owns the copyright). While the duration for which the copyright will apply varies from one country to another copyrights generally exist for a specific number of years either from the date of the material's creation or from the date of the author's death. Periods of fifty or even seventy five years are commonwith copyrights and so all material specifically written for the web is certain to still be subject to copyright for many years to come. Even a lot of material originally created for other media such as books will still be covered by the same copyright as applies to the printed copy.
There can be situations where material is old enough that it is out of copyright in one country while still subject to copyright in another. For example copyright in Australia always extends to fifty years from the death of the author and so the books "Animal Farm" and "1984" are out of copyright in Australia and could be legitimately copied to the web in Australia. The US copyright laws work slightly differently and those particular books still have several years to go with the copyright (at the time of writing this in 2011) in the US.
Material that is subject to copyright is much easier to steal from the web than from most other sources since the web supplies it in an electronic format that effectively produces a copy onto each viewer's computer prior to them viewing it.Also a lot more people are producing web sites than produce written material in other formats. Copyright material is therefore far more likely to occur on the web than in other places.
There are a number of steps that can be taken to protect your copyright on material that you create and upload to the web. The first step is to make sure that your material includes a copyright notice. This doesn't make any difference in so far as your work being covered by copyright is concerned but it makes it harder for someone to claim ignorance when they steal your content and may prevent those who honestly but mistakenly believe that material that isn't so labelled is not copyrighted from copying it. The next step if someone does copy your material is to contact them and advise them that your content is subject to copyright and that they do not have permission to display the stolen content on their page so please take it down. Most people will comply with this request in order to avoid the bigger penalties that they will suffer if you have to proceed to subsequent steps. If they don't comply then the next step is to contact their hosting provider and advise them that the web site is breaching your copyright and provide them with information so that they can see both the original copyrighted page and the stolen copy. In most instances once the provider is convinced that the site has breached your copyright (and probably also their terms of service) they will take the site down. A number of hosting providers make available a special form for you to use to rpovide them with the necessary information so that they can take this action. The final step if this doesn't work is to commence legal proceedings. You should be able to recover the cost of the legal action from the offending party and depending on the circumstances may also be able to claim for lost income due to their having copied your content. You will need to be able to prove that their copy affected your income though if you expect to be able to claim that.
If you are the person wishing to copy content from elsewhere on the web to your site then there are a number of steps you can take to minimise the possibility that you are inadvertently in breach of someone's copyright. The first thing to consider is whether you need to specifically copy the content word for word as if you can rewrite the entire thing in your own words then you not only are not copying their content but you also remove the possibility that search engines will consider your page to be a duplicate. You do need to be careful in rewriting someone else's content though and it is better if you can find two or three sources of the information to use as the basis of your new article.
If you specifically need to make an exact copy of their content then if the part you are copying is small enough then it may be considered to be "fair use". The fair use laws also differ from country to country as to how much you can legally copy and some countries even put the onus on you to prove that the portion you copied is small enough to meet that criteria. Generally, your best chance of being able to prove fair use is if the portion you copied is very small (eg. a paragraph or less) and if you copied it as a part of your job as a journalist or teacher.Note that copying a picture would never be considered fair use as there you are copying something in its entiirety and not just a small portion.
You may find when you start searching for the copyright owner to get their permission that the content is actually old enough to no longer be covered by copyright and is in fact now in the common domain where everyone may freely copyright. You should never assume that something is in the common domain just because it lacks a copyright notice though.
There is one problem with getting permission to copy content on the web though and that is that there are lots of web pages that are displaying stolen content and getting permission from a thief to copy the stolen content they are displaying does not mean that your copy is therefore allowed. That people might inadvertently breach someone's copyright by going through all of the proper steps to get permission from someone who has stolen that content is one of the reasons why people ask first to have stolen content taken down since the person displaying the stolen content may have tried to do all the right things in getting permission but contacted the wrong person for permission. In that instance it may even be possible to get the permission of the real copyright owner to continue to display the content once you show them the proof that you tried to do the right thing and assist them in their action against the thief you thought was the owner. You would still need to take down your copy of the content once they prove that they are the real owner until such time as they grant permission for you to put it back up though.
Stealing other people's web content is really easy. Trying to prevent others from stealing your content has no technical solution and so reliance on copyright laws to protect your content from theft is if anything far more important with respect to the web than it is to offline copyright material.
This article written by Stephen Chapman, Felgall Pty Ltd.