Disputes in Canada and the US are fuelling close scrutiny of the use of copyrighted material, with the outcomes threatening to increase the burden on academics.
Universities in Canada have broken away from the main copyright clearing house, which grants permission for use, in a battle over fees for online content.
Meanwhile, a federal court in the US is poised to rule in a precedent-setting case brought by publishers against a university they say has exceeded fair use of their material.
"We are seeing people using more content in a digital environment," explained Roanie Levy, an intellectual property lawyer and director of Access Copyright, which licenses copyrighted material and has proposed a significant increase in its tariff. "It's starting to play out as an issue that's being dealt with around the world," she added.
Begun in the days of the photocopied course pack, licensing agreements between universities and clearing houses such as Access Copyright cost universities in Canada C$3.39 (£2.11) per full-time student, plus 10 cents per copied page.
This adds up to about C$18 per student, depending on the discipline and level.
In exchange, the universities are allowed to post copyrighted works on course websites and make copies of published works for distribution to students.
But with digital technology now allowing material to be used in a variety of new ways, Access Copyright wants to raise its rate to C$45 per student.
Cash-strapped universities have baulked. At least 14 of Canada's 25 largest universities have chosen to break with Access Copyright. Instead, they intend to seek permission directly from publishers while also making fewer copies of material.
The break was started by the University of Calgary, where Thomas Hickerson, university librarian, calculates that its annual payments to Access Copyright would have increased from C$300,000 to C$1.3 million under the new tariffs.
"Very few universities have to this point agreed to it," said Mr Hickerson, who added that the universities also object to letting Access Copyright audit faculty and course websites to be sure they are in compliance, as it has demanded.
As for lecturers, they are "caught in the middle", according to James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers. "You (will now) have to upload your material and make sure you have copyright for the material you want to use."
But he agrees that the new rates are unreasonable. "It's exactly the time they should be lowering the prices, not raising them."
Ms Levy said that it would be easier and cheaper for universities to work with her agency. She also questioned the motives of universities: "Either they're going to take on the expense if they're truly going to respect copyright, which will create an incredible bottleneck for professors and students and ultimately cost more than the tariff, or they will turn a blind eye to copyright infringement," she said.
In the US, meanwhile, a court case has been brought by Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press and SAGE Publications against Georgia State University, which is accused of distributing "a vast amount" of material without permission.
The publishers say the electronic distribution of books and journals is devastating academic presses, which depend on the revenues to support scholarly publishing.
Universities argue that existing US law allows for the duplication of limited amounts of copyrighted material for educational purposes.
But in the face of legal action, Georgia State and others have now changed their policies by providing "fair-use checklists" to ensure that permission is always obtained.
The outcome of the court case, expected in the autumn, is awaited with interest.
Canada: all invited
Canada could increase its share of the international student market if it takes advantage of negative developments in other countries, a report has said.
Bringing Education in Canada to the World, Bringing the World to Canada, published by the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, cites changes in visa rules in the UK, rising tuition fees in both the UK and the US and negative publicity about the treatment of Indian students in Australia as developments that offer opportunities for others.
"Canada has an opportunity to distinguish itself as a country that offers high-quality education, relative affordability, and a high level of comfort with cultural diversity," it says. The report, which is Canada's first country-wide international education marketing plan, was approved by the heads of the provincial governments late last month.
It sets a series of objectives for the provincial governments to work towards, including improving the efficiency of the visa process and providing study-abroad opportunities.
One key target for growth is Brazil. Last week, Canada's prime minister Stephen Harper announced a series of initiatives to support collaboration between the countries.