Academics are alarmed at tougher copyright licensing regulations agreed earlier this year by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and the Copyright Licensing Agency.
The agreements cover copying for class use, copying from short loans collections and the creation of study packs. The restrictions are being imposed by university administrators worried about the risk of prosecution by the CLA.
Colin Jones, head of history at Warwick University, said his department's ability to teach using photocopied extracts has been severely inhibited. Many other history departments have expressed concerns through the subject association History at the Universities Defence Group.
Professor Jones said the CVCP/CLA agreement "has left many important details obscure and subject to local interpretations". At Warwick the library is unwilling to allow multiple copies of any materials that seem to be in copyright and insists that lecturers seek permission for xeroxing when copyright-holders are not among the publishers covered by the CLA system.
Cathy Charlton, senior assistant registrar at Warwick, said: "Bearing in mind the CVCP negotiated the agreement, I had hoped it might provide us with more advice on how to interpret it. The whole situation is very difficult for many academics across a wide range of disciplines because if they get it wrong the CLA could impose draconian fines."
Ms Charlton said the lack of help from the CVCP has forced Warwick to contact other universities to see how they are dealing with the agreement.
"My impression is that most universities have issued written guidance on the agreement but when it has come to putting it into practice have held up their hands in horror and said it is unimplementable," she said.
The CLA has also been slow in responding to requests on costings of study packs, for example, compiled by academics. "It used to be less than a day, sometimes just a few hours. We now have experiences of a week or more and that is after we have chased them up," Ms Charlton said.
Professor Jones said: "Many of us academics are authors too so it is in our own interests to have an effective, efficient copyright licensing system. But this agreement will lead to more unlicensed photocopies because cash-strapped students will carry out larger volumes of unlicensed photocopying."
A spokesman for the CVCP admitted the agreement had "stirred up a hornet's nest" in a number of institutions but said the problems centered on interpretation of the agreement. CVCP officials are planning to meet the CLA next week to devise ways to advise universities on implementation.
Raimond Kilpatrick, research and compliance manager at the CLA said: "We have made enormous financial concessions with this agreement which actually only clarifies something which has existed since 1993. I do not believe it is burdensome administratively."
* Agreement details on the CLA website: www.cla.co.uk