He is remembered mainly because he provided a bequest to the Royal Society in London in 1709, which provided the funding for an annual award, the Copley Medal, the Society's premier award for scientific achievement.
Copley was the son of a baronet of the same name, created by King Charles II in 1661, and he succeeded to his father's title in 1678. He was elected a member of the Royal Society in 1691. He served as Member of Parliament for Aldborough from 1679 to 1685 and for Thirsk from 1695 to 1709, and also served as commissioner of public accounts and controller of the accounts of the army.
Copley was a major landowner in Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire, holding lands in Sprotborough, Newton, Cusworth, Cadeby, Wildthorpe, Loversall, Doncaster, Bentley and Warmsworth, among other places. Copley's daughter Ann married Emanuel Mote of High Melton, Gent. Through his daughter's marriage, Copley was related to the Levett family of High Melton and York, with whom he had extensive real estate dealings.