The United States Copyright Act provides authors and certain named statutory successors a one-time right to unilaterally terminate grants and transfers of renewal copyrights within a narrowly specified window. The right has been called "inalienable" by the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Copyright Act expressly states that the right may be exercised notwithstanding "any agreement to the contrary." Despite the implications that this right may have on long standing agreements between authors or their heirs and grantees such as book publishers, very few courts have had the occasion to explore the right and the meaning of the Act’s "any agreement to the contrary" language.
The Ninth Circuit recently weighed in on the issue in Milne v. Slesigner, a case involving the renewal copyrights to various rights in the famous Winnie the Pooh works by A.A. Milne. The court held that a "re-grant" of certain copyrights to the work before the termination right matured did not qualify as "any agreement to the contrary" and therefore nullified Milne’s statutory successor’s termination right. The court interpreted the Act in a very narrow fashion, holding that the right is only immune from two specific categories of agreements- an agreement to make a will and an agreement to make any future grant. In doing so, the court seemingly split with the 2nd Circuit who had construed the statutory language more broadly to extend to another kind of agreements such as work for hire agreements entered into after the work has been created.