Copper (Cu) contamination is a potential threat to the marine environment due to the use of Cu-based antifouling paints. Cu stress on larval settlement of the polychaete Hydroides elegans was investigated, and this was linked to Cu stress on biofilms and on the biofilm development process. The inductiveness of young biofilms was more easily altered by Cu stress than that of old biofilms, indicating the relative vulnerability of young biofilms. This might result from changes in bacterial survival, the bacterial community composition and the chemical profiles of young biofilms. Cu also affected biofilm development and the chemical high performance liquid chromatograph fingerprint profile. The results indicate that Cu affected larval settlement mainly through its effect on the process of biofilm development in the marine environment, and the chemical profile was crucial to biofilm inductiveness. It is strongly recommended that the effects of environmentally toxic substances on biofilms are evaluated in ecotoxicity bioassays using larval settlement of invertebrates as the end point. © 2010 Taylor & Francis.