A model experimental approach, providing molecular scale insight into the build up mechanisms of a corrosion inhibiting interface, is reported. 2-mercaptobenzimidazole (2-MBI), a widely used organic inhibitor, was deposited from the vapor phase at ultra-low pressure on copper surfaces in chemically-controlled state, and X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy was used in situ to characterize the adsorption mechanisms upon formation of the inhibiting film. On copper surfaces prepared clean in the metallic state, the intact molecules lie flat at low exposure, with sulfur and both nitrogen atoms bonded to copper. A fraction of the molecules decomposes upon adsorption, leaving atomic sulfur on copper. At higher exposure, the molecules adsorb in a tilted position with sulfur and only one nitrogen bonded to copper, leading to a densification of 2-MBI in the monolayer. A bilayer is formed at saturation with the outer layer not bonded directly to copper. In the presence of a pre-adsorbed 2D oxide, oxygen is substituted and the molecules adsorb intactly without decomposition. A 3D oxide prevents the bonding of sulfur to copper. The molecular film formed on metallic and 2D oxide pre-covered surfaces partially desorbs and decomposes at temperature above 400 °C, leading to the adsorption of atomic sulfur on copper.